Why do I wake up at 3 am every day?
July 24, 2006 11:52 AM   Subscribe

No matter what time I go to sleep I always wake up within 15 minutes of 3 am. I may or may not get up and take a lap of the house and then I go right back to sleep until my normal wakeup time of 6:30. Why? What's special about 3 am?
posted by retrorider to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Your mission: Pick a night when you don't have to be too functional the next day, then stay up until 3. There might be some mysterious noise in your house/building/neighbourhood that occurs every night around 3 that's been waking you up but not lasting long enough to register hearing it.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 12:00 PM on July 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

My guess is it's something like a hot water heater, water pump, neighbor's sprinklers or something else. IIRC, when you're in between REM phases you're in a sort of shallow sleep state, so it may be that there is something that makes regular noise (once per hour?) that only gets you at 3 am because you're sleeping lightly. This happens to me in the early morning and it's usually someone else getting up in my house.
posted by jessamyn at 12:03 PM on July 24, 2006

Could it be a sound that's waking you up?

I live somewhat near a railroad station and if I'm already awake at 2 am, then I hear the cars banging. But if I'm asleep it doesn't wake me up.

Are you a light sleeper? If so, it could be anything, like a really prompt newspaper delivery person.

On preview: what Schlimmbesserung said.
posted by moonshine at 12:03 PM on July 24, 2006

My parents have a grandfather clock that would get me that way at 4 am every morning. My mom loved the sound of the clock, but hated the sound of me waking up and walking into walls on the way to the bathroom...
posted by SpecialK at 12:07 PM on July 24, 2006

Did you ever see The Amityville Horror? The main character wakes up at 3:15 every morning and does something crazy. The night after we saw it, my wife (then girlfriend) woke up at 3AM and couldn't go back to sleep. Maybe that movie subconsciously freaked you out.
posted by cebailey at 12:08 PM on July 24, 2006

I have this same pattern, pretty much. I think it is self-reinforcing. Regardless of the reason I originally got up, repeating the getting out of bed nightly when I wake up probably has caused me to ingrain the habit. If it's bothersome, I suggest just laying in bed for the next few nights, if you can, to try break the pattern. Perhaps after a while you will stop waking up at all.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:18 PM on July 24, 2006

Off and on for as long as I can remember, sometimes for months at a time I'll wake up at 4:45am. I always just thought I was weird.
posted by nadawi at 12:19 PM on July 24, 2006

Asthmatics very commonly have a reaction at the same time every night. Mine only happens when I'm having other breathing difficulties in general, and is usually within about 15 minutes of 4AM when it occurs - but it's later in the winter and earlier in the summer. I've always assumed it had something to do with overnight changes in weather/humidity/pressure or something of that sort.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:23 PM on July 24, 2006

Are you a smoker, or a big coffee drinker? Personal habits that involve neurologically active chemical agents can establish powerful overlay patterns for brain chemicals regulating sleep functions. This can change significantly as we age, so that what was once not physiologically troubling to our dreams, becomes so. Small changes in intake levels of such agents, in combination with apparently unrelated factors such as stress, or weight change, can produce sleep patterns that quickly become self-reinforcing.

Or maybe you're just hungry in the dark.
posted by paulsc at 12:26 PM on July 24, 2006

There's a famous old study of a Chicago neighborhood which had a branch of the El which was closed down. More than a decade later, '911' was still getting a substantial number of calls complaining about a terrible noise at precisely the time, in the middle of the night, when the train used to go by.
posted by jamjam at 12:27 PM on July 24, 2006 [12 favorites]

The possibility of a noise triggering this is a great idea -- I'll often go through periods where I always wake up around a certain time in the night, and I had not thought of that.

I also read on a sleep researcher's blog that, with the exception of recent history, the usual pattern for human sleep was to go to bed in the early evening, sleep for several hours, get up for a bit around midnight (a time when people often had sex), and then go back to sleep until the sun rose.

So I doubt that this is particularly unusual.
posted by teece at 12:32 PM on July 24, 2006

I haven't read At Day's Close: Night in Time Past, by A. Roger Ekirch, but according to a review I can't find right now, his research has found that in the middle ages(?) it was common for people to wake up in the middle of the night and spend some quiet solitary time meditiating or writing down their dreams before going back to sleep. There's a little more info in this Houston Chronicle review, and you can read something else the author wrote on the topic in this article in the American Historical Review (do a find-in-page for "interval of wakefulness").

So basically, maybe it's not so odd what you're doing, even if nowadays most people get their sleep in one stretch.

(On preview, what teece said)
posted by nevers at 12:44 PM on July 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

I had the same problem throughout high school. I would wake up at about 6:30 every morning, Monday through Friday.. I never used an alarm. I had read about it about two years ago, possibly on lifehacker.

Heres a few things I came up with:

posted by Sufi at 12:46 PM on July 24, 2006

total derail, pun intended. jimjam, that is awesome. can you provide any more information about the haunted el and this famous old study?
posted by crush-onastick at 12:56 PM on July 24, 2006

So, about a year ago I suffered a major attack of depression -- the worst in my life. I went (for the first time) to a therapist who proceded to explain that many of the things that I thought were contributing to the depression were actually symptoms of clinical depression, including early waking insomnia. Seriously, when I told her I was having trouble sleeping and she said, "Waking up between 2 and 3 every morning?" I was stunned. I was, just like you, waking up within 15 minutes of 3:00 every night.

After only a few sessions, the depression was greatly abated, and the nightly waking was gone. Just something you might want to consider.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:23 PM on July 24, 2006

Response by poster: The periodic noise idea was my first thought. I have yet to identify any but maybe staying up will help.

I don't smoke and I have cut my coffee intake to less than two cups a day; both before noon. So I don't think that is a factor.

The depression angle is intriguing...
posted by retrorider at 2:52 PM on July 24, 2006

Out in left field here: 3am is about time people with normal circadian rhythms hit the lowest metabolic/activity rate. Completely out in left field: is something similar to sleep apnea happing, where your heart rate or breathing rate becomes so low your body "panics" and hits the emergency button to wake you, possibly releasing Adrenalin or something, to get you breathing normally again?
posted by orthogonality at 3:17 PM on July 24, 2006

Also bear in mind that just about every case of cancer starts in the liver... [from your link]

Sounds unlikely to this longtime smoker, I'm afraid. Call me an old sceptic, but when the Big C gets me, it'll likely be starting in me lungs.
posted by dash_slot- at 3:31 PM on July 24, 2006

Its called bimodal sleep, and is apparently innate, or at least was, until the invention of electric light.

There are probably better links, but heres a start:

Awakening to Sleep (NYT)

Circadiana: What is a 'natural' sleep pattern?

Sleep therapist Dr. Rubin Naiman explains the true causes of sleep disorders, caffeine cravings and sleep hormone imbalances

Speculation for the reason for this waking up period is semi-conscious processing of dreams, or sex. Further guesses: maybe its to do with caring for infants or possibly even assessing the enivornment for danger.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:49 PM on July 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

It is the hour of the wolfe (3am-4am), when your energy is at its lowest. Caused by getting a short of the hormone cortisol a few hours too early. A common symtom of stress and depression. If you can stay up 24 hours might be able to reset your clock so you get the cortisol around 10 am when you need it to deal with all the shit life gives you.
posted by zackdog at 8:44 PM on July 24, 2006


I can't tell you how helpful it was to me to learn that little fact tying together my insomnia with my depression. I have had a couple more minor bouts since that major one, and each time, the insomnia has acted as an early warning system, and I am able to deal with the depression much more promptly and proactively now.

Seeing a therapist was a big psychological hurdle (so to speak) for me to overcome, but it was very much worth it in the long run. If depression seems like a possibility for you, I urge you to give it a try.

Email's in my profile if you want to talk further.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:45 PM on July 24, 2006

According to Chinese Medicine the hours 1-3am are ruled by the Liver and the hours 3-5am are ruled by the Lungs. It's called the horary cycle and there are points on the body related to these times. The Liver point is just proximal to the lateral corner of the nail. In Chinese Medicine the Liver is responsible for the free flow of energy and emotion - anger and depression are two sides of that coin. The Lung point is one thumb width proximal to the transverse crease of the wrist in the depression on the lateral side of the radial artery. If it is before 3am massage the Liver point with a pen or your finger, if after, use the Lung point.

Earlier I was convinced it must be a noise but it is obviously your Liver.
posted by pointilist at 8:49 PM on July 24, 2006

"So, since we cannot shape Time, where does that leave men? Sleepless. Staring. Three a.m. That's our reward. Three in the morn'. The souls's midnight. The tide goes out, the soul ebbs. And a train arrives at an hour of despair ... Why?"

"Something Wicked This Way Comes," Ray Bradbury.
posted by rintj at 9:02 PM on July 24, 2006

Wow, rocksteady, that's revelatory to me. I went through a period of major stress two years ago, and woke up every morning at 3:30 or 4:00 every night for a year. I used to lie there, freaking out about my situation, and the only way I could go back to sleep was to get up, smoke a cigarette and check email (to see if there was anything new in my drama, which there never was.) I guess it shouldn't be surprising to hear that that was a known sign of depression, but in restrospect, that makes a lot of sense.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:03 PM on July 24, 2006

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