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Waking Up at 3am…What does it mean and what can you do about it?

by Lisa on May 19, 2012

There have been times in my life, like now, when no matter what time I go to sleep, I always wake up super early in the morning. Waking up at 3am is not desirable for me–and I’m guessing it’s not for most other people either! When this happens, I don’t really feel tired, and I don’t really have much trouble going to sleep at night, but I wake up and sort of lay there doing nothing until it’s time to get up.

I sometimes thought this was just because I’m so darn healthy that I don’t require much sleep. I go to bed relatively early, so that seemed plausible. But when I look back at other times when this was happening, it was in times of high stress in my life. I’ve read in research studies about how people who are depressed often wake up in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep. Back in the earlier 2000′s when I was waking up early, I figured it was because I was sort of depressed (which made sense—my sister had died, I moved home from Boston, and things were just kind of crappy…even though I was working through it semi-positively). But I’m not depressed now, so this really didn’t seem to apply to me. But I’ll be honest, I’m not doing a great job of managing my stress at the moment.

I can feel it—a little too much coffee in the morning, not quite enough nutrients throughout the day, and just not managing things very well.

3am

So I did some research, and found out this:

In response to stress, the adrenal glands (that sit on top of your kidneys) release adrenaline. Back in caveman days, this was great—stress tended to be primarily physical and it helped people out run bears and find food. Today, stress is primarily psychological (although physical stress occurs in other ways, like eating crappy food, having a sedentary lifestyle, toxin exposure, etc.), but the adrenaline release still occurs.

Think of how caffeine affects your body: increased heart rate, dilated pupils, increased breathing rate, decreased focus on digestion….adrenaline does the same things.

(Side note: having a stressful life causes you not to use nutrients—so you could eat tons of micronutrients, but not use them!)

The answer to why 3am wakefulness indicates unmanaged stress has to do with liver regeneration. It’s the time when your liver nourishes itself, and it needs glycogen to do so. One of the things adrenaline does is it causes cells to use glycogen, so if supply is low because you’ve had a higher adrenaline release (due to stress), the liver cannot regenerate.

The end result? Your body releases more adrenaline in response to the liver not having adequate glycogen—and you’re wide awake at 3am.

My solution:

Manage stress

Breathe deeply (learn why this works!)

Drink less coffee

Eat more quality foods and fewer foods that cause stress (i.e. easier to digest)

Balance high intensity exercise with low intensity exercise

Replenish carbs after workouts (I’m guilty of not doing this sometimes)

Make sure to get adequate potassium and sodium (keeps cells and organs working efficiently)

 

It looks pretty easy—and it is actually quite simple. It’s a matter of implementation!

I over did the high intensity exercise this week. And the coffee. And I let some stressful situations and thoughts run rampant for a while. So this week, I’m going to work on it. I have all the tools and skills needed to manage my stress, I just have to do it. I’ll start with not working out till Monday (I’m so sore right now, and not in a very good way). Matthew is spending the night, so we’ll probably bike ride, which is more recreational. And I’ll try to get him to go to bed early (should be easy—he has a lacrosse tournament today so he’ll be tired).

How do you manage your stress? 

Did you know about the 3am stress-adrenaline response?

Please +1 and comment below to tell me about your sleep habits! Do you wake up at 3am?


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  • http://twitter.com/ChefKatelyn Katelyn Block

    I’ll be honest — this happens to me a lot too! I wasn’t aware about all of the adrenaline and glycogen jazz, so thanks to you I now know what’s going on and what can be changed. As for the exercise, though, I think I could use some more of that.

  • http://www.cottercrunch.com lindsay cotter

    i think we live parallel lives! And i feel the same. I ended up taking yoga today instead and basically juicing, making simple meals, etc. Destress!

  • Petra Duguid

    I just found you through Lindsay Cotter’s link and this is really interesting.  Thank you for sharing!  

  • http://spabettie.com/ Kristina

    wise words, my friend! I am waking early these days too, often able to fall back asleep but sometimes not… so I get up and use those extra couple hours. thanks for the new info to me, and the great suggestions.

  • http://blissfulbritt.com/ Brittany

    Wow interesting stuff!! I try realllllyyy hard to manage my stress because of the nutrient non absorption and weight gain aspects. Plus I don’t want any ill health problems. I hope you find something that works! 

  • claybaboons

    I definitely wake up in the wee hours of the morning when I’m feeling stressed.  The trick is to not start thinking.  But – of course – it’s pretty much impossible to not start thinking.  My sleep improved enormously when I got rid of some external stress.

  • tiptoeskst

    Adrenal fatigue is the bane of my existence. I’ve been working on it with several naturopathic healers for about a year now. I fall asleep easily (between 9pm and 10pm), but by midnight/1am I can feel my brain switch turn on and I’m not really sleeping any more. Needless to say my health is (much) less than perfect, though better in ways than it was before as well. It’s just taking a LONG time to resolve.

  • Gina (Candid RD)

    SO INTERESTING!!  So…I think this explains the “dawn-phenomenon” in diabetics.  Around 3 am you get a spike in blood sugar to get you ready for the day.  I mean, it’s different, but it’s the same, if you know what I mean.
    Now, how do you explain me not being able to fall asleep at night!? I drink my last cup of coffee around 9:30am, and I don’t drink more than about 350 mg caffeine.

  • http://thehealthybeehive.com/ Jane

    I did not know about that … fascinating!  I hope you are able to manage your stress this upcoming week!

  • http://www.1970kikiproject.wordpress.com/ cathy@1970kikiproject

    oh, i am sorry to hear about the stress you are feeling, lisa! that 3 a.m. stress response makes TOTAL sense – i definitely have noticed/experienced it in the past, and YES, it was during high stress times. thanks for sharing the information – fascinating.
    for you, i do hope you can return to feeling more centred – sounds like you have a good strategy mapped out. enjoy your matthew time – that will certainly help!
    i manage stress by: working to eliminate/deal with the source, journalling, working out/running, talking to my mom and friends, praying. i can get stressed pretty easily, something i have been (successfully) working on for years!

  • http://alexiaku.wordpress.com/ Alexia

    I have been waking up in the middle of the night as well! I feel super stressed and wake up sweating like a pig. I dont know why though since I truly try to balance my life. One thing I am sure of though is that the lack of yoga in my life in the past weeks has an impact on it. I mean i teach it 5 times a week but dont do it myself. that takes ENDLESS energy!
    I always learn something when reading your posts!! great!

  • http://www.thefitnessdish.com/ Laury

    Wow. Such an interesting post, as always, Lisa! My waking in the middle of the night has to do with a little peanut but my husband has NEVER been a good sleeper. He is always stressed from work and this post describes him to a T. I don’t know what to do. He doesn’t drink coffee, but the extent of me changing his eating is pretty much not buying junk and he quit soda a few years ago (a big win for me!) He does exercise, but not nearly as much as he used to.

    I never knew about this before and am glad I do now!

  • http://www.DiningAndDishing.com/ Beth @ DiningAndDishing

    To manage stress, I try to go for walks, journal, do yoga and call my friends and family. Sometimes I’m not so good as I try to be though! I don’t think stress eating is quite as healthy :)

  • http://www.pickyeatingrd.com/ Allison @ PickyEatingRD

    This is very interesting to me. I am actually quite horrible with managing stress . I suffer from stress induced anxiety and it effects me some times more than others. In recent years I have gotten a lot better at dealing with it but lately I have been a horrible sleeper. It doesn’t feel like stress but I guess it could be a bit of it building up. I’ve been trying to track my sleep and really get more in tune with my body. I’ll have to research this a little more thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.thrive-style.com/ Lisakthrives

    Yes….so frustrating, and a long-term issue for many. It’s funny, the longer this goes on for me, the more stressed I get about it, and I’m sure I’m making it worse! 

  • saraeanderson

    Early waking is often a sign of depression.  It’s one of my red flags that I’m out of sorts.  

  • Christine Lackey

    bull-shit, its my mothers spirit haunting my sister for talking bad about her, i watched the 4th kind about alien abduction and this little girl on actual real live video ploice footage was abducted at exactly 3:33 , i woke up that night at exactly 3;33, and it aint got nothin to do with stress or diet, nimrods.

  • http://www.thrive-style.com/ Lisakthrives

    I never said this was the only reason a person would wake up at that time.
    On Mon 18/06/12 13:03 , “Disqus” notifications@disqus.net sent:

  • Vati

    That movie did not utilize real police footage, google it. I’m a big believer in the supernatural but sometimes it really is your body telling you it’s out of whack.

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