Why do I keep waking up early? Here’s what the experts have to say

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  • There’s nothing more frustrating than waking up early in the morning before your alarm and then not being able to go back to sleep again.

    Whether it’s the noise outside, hay fever or something more serious like insomnia, many people during lockdown especially have been suffering with waking up earlier than they want to. And while some can happily fall back asleep, others really struggle to drift back into dreamland.

    Our experts agree that waking up early in the morning could be because something’s wrong and your body is trying to tell you what’s going on. 

    But why? As Hypnotherapy Directory member Penelope Ling explains, “Our sleep is part of our circadian cycles, which are our internal clock. They are set by light levels and temperature and trigger our brain chemistry. Each cycle is approximately 90 minutes long and at our deepest sleep, our brains are allowing toxins to be flushed away, then we go into REM sleep.”

    READ MORE: How lockdown is affecting people’s sleep – and there’s one surprising age group that is particularly struggling

    She says that melatonin, the hormone which aids REM sleep, helps us to fall asleep at the beginning of the night and cortisol levels rise in the early hours of the morning to help us get up.

    In conjunction with this, Penelope explains that in the first half of the night, “Our brains are sorting out memory, [and in] the latter half of the night, it’s sorting out emotional stuff.”

    The combination of rising cortisol levels, which begin at about 4am, and the dispensing of emotions early in the morning could therefore be a reason that many of us are struggling with unwelcome early wake up times.

    If you’re someone who routinely finds themselves awake at 4am or 5am and struggles to get back to sleep, then it might be time to listen to what your body is telling you and make changes – mentally or physically.

    If you do that, then before you know it, you’ll be sleeping through to the morning and wishing for five more minutes in bed again. 

    These are some of the main reasons that people wake up early in the morning, according to sleep experts across the fields of psychotherapy, nutrition and coaching.

    Why do I keep waking up early?

    Environmental factors

    A good sleep environment is essential for a good night’s rest. However, many of us are settling for sub-par conditions and it will only go on to affect our sleep as it’s lighter in the evenings and mornings during the summer.

    Take a look at some of the main ways a bad environment can effect our sleep, then scroll down to discover some of the expert-recommended products to fix it.

    1. Sunlight sneaking in

    “I don’t need to tell you that during the summer its gets lighter earlier in the morning.” James Wilson, an expert in sleep environments, says. “Light is incredible important to your wake/sleep cycle. When it is dark we are asleep, but when it gets light this is a signal to the body that it is time to stop producing sleep inducing hormones and start producing wake up hormones like cortisol.” 

    How to fix it: James, aka The Sleep Geek, suggests that physically altering your sleep environment is the best way to solve the problem of sunlight seeping into your bedroom. “Make sure your room is dark,” he says, “And if it’s not, perhaps invest in some black out blinds or a black out eye mask.”

    Scroll down to the bottom of this article to check out some of our favourites.

    2. Your bedroom is too warm

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    Another common problem that James comes across, he says, is a sleep environment that’s too warm. “Our body is very sensitive to changes in core temperature when it comes to sleep, and the hot summer months can make sleep more difficult to sustain.”

    Lloyds’ Pharmacy pharmacist Anshu Kaura agrees, and reminds us about the importance of melatonin in getting a good night’s sleep. “It’s the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle by dropping your core body temperature so that it is in the right state to faciliate good sleep.” She explains, “This process can get interrupted when your body temperature is too high, as the body is unable to produce this hormone and so your body can’t drop to the necessary level for good sleep.”

    How to fix it: But luckily, both James and Anshu say this is an easy problem to fix.

    James advises, “Ensure there is an airflow in your bedroom, so maybe leave the windows open.

    “Consider what your mattress is made from, foam mattresses make you hotter and to help your body manage its temperature then sprung mattresses with natural fillings may be more helpful.

    READ MORE: Sleeping naked to beat the heat could actually be making you hotter

    “Try having a separate duvet or sheet to your partner, as if you share a duvet their body heat will make you hotter, where separate sleep environments allow you both the chance to manage your temperature better.” 

    Anshu also suggests that a fan could help create air flow around the room and that if you have a warm sleeping space, it’s important to stay hydrated so keep a glass of water by the bed. 

    3. Spending too much time in bed

    a couple sitting in bed - waking up early

    Credit: Getty

    While a solution to a bad day at work for many of us is to curl into bed early, this might not be the best idea for creating a good quality sleep environment. This is because the more time you spend in bed doing other things like relaxing, watching television or even working, the more your brain associates bed with a place of movement rather than sleep.

    How to fix it: Penelope Ling explains that the best way to solve this problem is essentially, “Only use your bed for sleep, if you are have difficulties sleeping. Then our brains associate the bed ONLY with sleep, instead of being the place you do everything else.

    “No computing, no TV, no spending hours chatting with friends – just sleep.”

    “And with teens it’s important they get their sleep, they need around 10 hours,” she adds, “So it’s worthwhile investing in blackout curtains too as their sleep patterns are usually 1am – 11am.”

     Physical factors

    If you’ve got a lovely dark, cool bedroom but you’re still struggling to sleep, then it could be something physical that’s stopping you from getting proper shut-eye.

    Here, our experts outline the common physical problems that can cause us issues, or simply change our sleeping habits. This means that they’re not necessarily a problem, but just something to consider if you’re worried about waking up early in the morning.

    1. Age

    As Penelope Ling tells GoodtoKnow, “Age can make a difference to when we fall asleep and wake up. As we get older, into our 70s, we go to bed earlier, need less sleep and wake early. 9.30pm to 4.30am is common.”

    How to fix it: Unfortunately, there’s no cure for getting older! If you think this could be the reason that you’re waking up early then no need to worry, our expert says it’s perfectly natural.

    2. Sleep apnea

    However, sleep apnoea is something more to worry about. But while not dangerous, sleep apnea is a condition that can seriously affect your sleeping habits as it’s when your breathing stops and starts during the night. 

    Common symptoms, according to the NHS, include:

    • Breathing stopping and starting again
    • Making gasping, snorting or choking noises during sleep 
    • Waking up a lot in the night
    • Loud snoring

    During the day you might also feel really tired and find it hard to concentrate, have mood swings and a headache when you first wake up

    Because episodes of sleep apnoea are often worse during REM sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep, when the muscles are temporarily immobilized, it’s likely to be one of the causes of waking up early in the morning. 

    According to Dr. Michael Breus, otherwise known as the Sleep Doctor, ‘REM sleep is concentrated more heavily in the last half of the night, which means people with sleep apnea may be more likely to be awakened in the very early morning as a result of their sleep-disordered breathing.’

    Penelope Ling agrees. She says, “Snoring – Sleep Apnoea – will disrupt sleep. [It is] often triggered during the REM state as the body struggles to take in air. It’s often caused by obesity and is linked with other high levels of cortisol.”

    How to fix it: To solve this, Dr Breus suggests that those who suffer with sleep apnea should go and talk to their health care provider and ask for a sleep apnea screening. He says, ‘If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea and prescribed treatment, whether a CPAP or mouthpiece, use it – and use it every night! 

    ‘When people comply with therapy, sleep apnea is highly treatable, and the symptoms and health risks associated with sleep apnea improve considerably.’ 

    3. Lacking in magnesium

    a picture of a banana - magnesium can help us to stop waking up early

    Credit: Getty

    Our vitamin and mineral levels are essential for maintaining our health. Magnesium is one of those and according to Counselling Directory member Fiona Austin, a lack of magnesium could be a cause of ‘disrupted sleep and sleep rarely attained.’

    How to fix it: As well as offering healthy doses of iron, magnesium can be found in green leafy vegetables like spinach. Along with bananas, nuts, brown rice, bread and fish. Incorporating more of these into your diet, or using specialist products, could alleviate the deficiency and help you to sleep better.

    4. Being hungover

    Sometimes having a few too many can cause more problems than just a headache. “Alcohol is a common cause of sleep disruption,” Resident sleep expert, Christabel Majendie from Naturalmat tells GoodtoKnow, “As it changes the type of sleep you get across the night.

    How to fix it: Unfortunately, the best way to prevent a hangover is to limit the number of drinks that you have. Before you go to bed, you could also try to re-hydrate by drinking lots of water.

    5. Too much/too little exercise

    woman getting ready for exercise - waking up early

    Credit: Getty

    Especially over lockdown, some of us have really gotten into a solid exercise routine. And as wonderful as it might be for our bodies and losing weight, exercise can affect our sleeping patterns. Nick Littlehales, Elite Sport Sleep Recovery Coach and Performance Lab Consultant, explains. “In any 24 hour cycle the deeper sleep stages are revealed between 10pm and 2/3am with lighter sleep stages dominating the final hours into wake as the sun returns to wake us up. That’s why it’s very common to wake around 2/3am if your everyday activity approach is desynchronised with these natural human rhythms.”

    READ MORE: Most sleep-deprived cities in the UK have been revealed

    But he also says that not exercising enough can cause sleeping issues, “Along with under and overexposure to light, a lack of or intense exercise regime will have an impact on your natural biological rhythms and keep your brain in a compensating, always adapting mode.

    How to fix it: Nick says that a balanced approach to exercise should fix any exercise-related sleeping difficulties. “A balanced approach to exercise will avoid being crashed into sleep between 9pm & 12am and then woken around 2/3 am feeling either unrefreshed or wide awake. Once that becomes the norm then the only way out is to reset, before other counter productive behaviour adjustments kick in.”

    6. Hayfever

    For those with allergies, hay fever is often the biggest problem with the warmer seasons.

    “Hayfever can worsen sleep-related problems, and studies show that a large proportion of hay fever sufferers have issues with sleeping.” Shamir Patel, pharmacist and founder of Chemist 4 U, says.

    “The main reason for this is because of the way that pollen spreads. It rises in the air during the day and falls back to the ground when the temperature drops, exposing sufferers to high levels of pollen later in the evening. Some types of flowers will also release pollen very early in the morning. So if you sleep with your windows open, and you have lots of flowers or trees in your garden, then you can be affected whilst you are asleep.”

    How to fix it: Along with regular hay fever remedies like tablets and eye drops to ease symptoms, you could try closing your windows at night and having a shower before bed to wash off any pollen collected on your body or hair during the day.

    7. Pregnancy

    pregnant woman in bed sleeping - waking up early

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    Pregnancy is an amazing, but often difficult, time for those experiencing it. And unfortunately, along with affecting your appetite and lifestyle, pregnancy can also hinder your sleep as our core temperature is raised, which could be causing us sleeping difficulties and make us wake up early in the morning.

    READ MORE: 12 of the best baby sleep aids to help babies sleep through the night

    Sleep expert Christabel Majendie explains that, “In addition, there is an increased need to urinate frequently, reflex problems and issues with bodily discomfort, all posing a challenge to maintaining sleep through the night.”

    How to fix it: Our experts suggest that maintaining a good sleep routine, cutting back on liquids right before sleep and exercising regularly could all help those who are pregnant achieve a better quality of sleep.

    8. Menopause and hormonal shifts

    In a similar way, menopause and hormonal shifts can affect our sleep. Sleep foundation.org says that this is because there are a number of ‘major hormonal, physical and psychological’ changes during this time.

    “From peri-menopause to post-menopause, women report the most sleeping problems. Most notably, these include hot flashes, mood disorders, insomnia and sleep-disordered breathing. Sleep problems are often accompanied by depression and anxiety.

    “Generally, post-menopausal women are less satisfied with their sleep and as many as 61% report insomnia symptoms.”

    Christabel Majendie from Naturalmat agrees. She says, “During the menopause, core body temperature fluctuates widely and women experience hot flushes during the day and night. This leads to night waking and early morning waking and problems returning to sleep as a raised core body temperature can prevent sleep.”

    And a spokesperson for Supplement Place adds that it’s not just women who experience issues sleeping when hormone changes are taking place. They say, “For men, prostate changes can also make it harder to sleep through the night undisturbed.” 

    How to fix it: As Supplement Place suggests, “If you’re still experiencing issues, work together with your doctor or a health professional to help you pinpoint the reasons why you’re waking up too early, and treat any underlying health issues that may be causing the sleep disruption.

    “For example, treatments such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or supplements can be a great way to manage sleep disorders, depression, stress and anxiety.”

    Mental and/or emotional factors

    As Penelope explained to us, in the latter half of the night and into the early morning, our brain is processing our emotions at the same time our cortisol levels are rising. If you’re suffering with emotional difficulties during the day, this could easily seep into your sleep at night.

    These are some of the most common reasons relating to our mental health that cause sleep issues…

    1. Insomnia

    Insomnia is simply having trouble sleeping. “Insomnia affects one in three people at some point in their lives, and it can manifest itself in a few, very uncomfortable ways.” Shamir Patel, pharmacist and founder of Chemist 4 U assures us.

    “It can make it difficult to fall asleep in the first place – causing long hours of distress – or it can mean that people find it hard to stay asleep during the evening. Some people may find that they wake up far earlier than they would like and then find it difficult to get back to sleep.

    “Often, people with insomnia will feel very tired when they do wake up and will experience extreme tiredness during the day. The stress that this causes can often exacerbate the problem.

    “Patients can either suffer from acute insomnia, which lasts for a month or less, or chronic insomnia, which lasts for more than a month and occurs at least three nights per week.”

    How to fix it: There’s no one quick trick for curing insomnia but the NHS recommends the following…

    • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day – only go to bed when you feel tired…
    • Relax at least 1 hour before bed – for example, take a bath or read a book.
    • Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet – use thick curtains, blinds, an eye mask or ear plugs.
    • Exercise regularly during the day.
    • Make sure your mattress, pillows and covers are comfortable.

    They also advise ditching the caffeine and alcohol in favour of a herbal tea before bed, not eating meals late at night and not using devices with bright light right before you go to sleep.

    2. Depression

    Tackling depression is very difficult and some people don’t even know they have it until they are diagnosed at the doctors. But Penelope Ling, one of our sleep experts, suggests that early morning waking is linked to depression.

    She says, “Continuous rumination strengthens the connectivity in the brain between the areas responsible for short-term memory, “the self” and negative emotion. Continuous disruption of sleep can cause depression, but equally, depression can trigger insomnia. There is also evidence that depression encourages longer stretches of sleep at different times, and that reducing the amount of sleep for a depressed individual can be beneficial.” 

    How to fix it: Treatment for depression is one of the ways to go about securing a better night’s sleep with the condition. The NHS advises treatment based around the severity of the condition so for mild depression, treatment options like exercise and therapy might be suggested.

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling is an option suggested for those with mild to moderate depression, and anti-depressants are given as one treatment option for those with severe depression.

    3. Anxiety 

    Similar to depression, anxiety – whether it’s mild and situational or chronic – can cause us to lose sleep.

    “When there are stressors in our lives, our physiology gears up for a fight-or-flight response that can contribute to sleepless nights and anxious dreams.” Melinda Powell, UKCP Psychotherapist and author of The Hidden Lives of Dreams, explains. “Up to 50% of dream content thematically relates to emotions experienced the day before, so, essentially, anxiety dreams act as a form of nocturnal therapy, helping us to work through our fears and concerns. They may even have a role in moderating our fears in waking life – making us less reactive and so more able to act more responsively in our daily lives.” 

    How to fix it: If you’re experiencing anxious dreams, Melinda suggests that you write them down or talk about your feelings with a trusted friend or therapist. 

    “You can also reimagine your dream in a positive way, speaking up for yourself calmly and assertively.” She adds, “For instance, if you dream of entering the wrong Zoom meeting and people tell you you’re stupid, recall the dream scene but this time try saying, ‘Hey, I’m not stupid, I’m just getting the hang of this technology! There’s no need to be unkind.’ You can do the same for events during the day that made you anxious, imagining how you would have liked to respond or behave differently.”  

    Alternatively, it’s just the way you are 

    While there are many reasons, environment to emotional, that could impact your sleeping habits and prevent you from sleeping well, in some cases it’s just who you are.

    “We all sit on a sleep type spectrum, which dictates when we feel sleepy and when we wake up.” James Wilson explains, “At one end are larks (early sleepers, early risers), and at the other are owls (late sleepers, late risers) and taking in Typical sleepers (somewhere in the middle). 

    “This sleep type changes as we go through our lives and it may that you are a lark and there has to be some acceptance of this is who you are. My advice would be if this is the case, do not beat yourself up about it too much, and embrace your larkishness, taking advantage of more energy earlier in the day.” 

    So if your sleeping habits don’t fit any of the above, it could just be because your sleep type has changed and you’re now an early bird! 

    Why does my toddler keep waking up early?

    todder standing in cot

    Credit: Getty

    Children are notorious for not sleeping through the night and while they tend to grow out of it at some stage, it can be an uncomfortable couple of years in some cases.

    Lauren Peacock at Little Sleep Stars is a child sleep specialist. She advises, “To avoid early-waking, it is key that the sleep environment is dark and quiet until the morning as light, in particular, cues the body to wake.

    READ MORE: Bedtime routine: How much sleep do children need?

    “Approach an early wake up as you would if it were midnight, gently encouraging your child to settle back to sleep, however you would earlier in the night. 

    “A common, but counterintuitive, cause of early waking is overtiredness so if your child is routinely keen to start the day pre-6am, make sure that their bedtime isn’t too late and that they still take a daytime nap if they are aged three or under.” 

    Why do I keep waking up at 4am or 5am every day?

    For those of us who are waking up at odd times in the morning, more often than not, it’s at the same time every day – sometime around 4am or 5am. This could be because of the simultaneous rise in cortisol levels and the brain’s processing of emotional material early in the morning.

    As Penelope Ling, Hypnotherapy Director member, says, “Melatonin helps us fall asleep at the beginning of the night and cortisol rises in the early hours of the morning – around 4am – to help us get up.”

    “The first half of the night, our brains are sorting out memory, the latter half of the night, it’s sorting out emotional stuff.” 

    This could mean that you’re suffering from some emotional, environment or physical difficulties that are impacting your brain and body’s abilities to sleep.

    These are some of the products our experts recommend for avoiding waking up early in the morning: