Hello folks! Seasoned health coach and Primal Health Coach Institute Curriculum Director, Erin Power is back to answer all your questions about sleep, from why you’re waking up in the middle of the night to the best natural ways to improve your sleep cycle. Got more questions? Post them over in our Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group or down in the comments below.
“I’ve been going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. for a few weeks. For some reason, I’ve started waking at 3:15 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. Any ideas on what’s causing it?”
Almost half of all adults struggle with insomnia1 to some degree, so, if it’s any consolation, you’re in good company. That being said, it’s not ideal to feel like you’re dragging yourself around all day, coping with sugar-laden snacks or venti-sized cups of coffee.
One of two nights of suboptimal sleep are manageable. But when it’s a nightly occurrence? It’s time to dig a little deeper.
What Waking Up Early Really Means
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine,2 waking up at a specific time of the night (or early morning in your case) is a sign that something is off in the body since, as TCM teaches, different hours are associated with different organs and emotional states. Even if you don’t follow that train of thought, paying attention to your body’s signals can be a huge wake-up call (no pun intended).
It sounds like these 3 a.m. awakenings are a new thing, so start by looking at what’s changed recently.
Under more stress at home or work?
Taking a new prescription or supplement?
Looking at a screen later at night?
Eating too close to bedtime?
Eating more carbs than normal…or fewer carbs?
Consuming alcohol or caffeine later in the day?
Anytime you’re doing something that’s working, then suddenly it’s not working, it’s usually because some other element has changed. I know, this isn’t rocket science, but in health coaching we like to start with the obvious. I like to start with the lowest-hanging fruit, which in my experience, is quite often a change in stress levels.
When you go to bed at night and life’s other distractions have quieted down, the brain shifts into repair mode, and one of the tendencies that’s somewhat inherent to that is processing the worries of the day. While you might fall asleep with ease, your 3 a.m. jolt could be caused by an activation of your sympathetic nervous system. Maybe you feel your heart rate increase or your thoughts start racing. If this is the case with you, be aware of what might be causing your stress and take steps to alleviate it before your head hits the pillow.
When Blood Sugar is to Blame
Another thing to look at is blood sugar balance, which is can also be a culprit for 3 a.m. wake ups. It’s well established that high carbohydrate intake has been shown to increase the number of times a person wakes at night and reduces the amount of deep sleep.3If you’re used to using carbs as fuel and eating every few hours, blood sugar can drop during the night because your body isn’t getting the constant glucose drip it’s receiving during the day. It’s just one of the reasons I’m a huge advocate for getting off the Standard American Diet and snacking rollercoaster.
High carb isn’t always to blame though. One study showed that a lower carbohydrate diet could also impact sleep due to low levels of serotonin and melatonin.4 Researchers found that diets that were less than 50% carbs were linked to difficulty staying asleep — especially in men. There’s also proof that some people who ate low carb are more prone to experiencing sleep apnea.5
Take an honest look and get clear on what’s changed in the past week or so. If you’re under more stress, eating more carbs, or starting a diet like keto, get curious about what you can do to keep sleeping through the wee hours.
“I’m lacking energy and am generally tired most of the day. According to my Fitbit, my sleep quantity is good, but my sleep quality is poor. I eat primal 95% of the time, though I’m not really trying to eat low carb. I supplement with magnesium, fermented cod liver oil, fermented skate liver oil, kelp, and probiotics. I do drink two large cups of butter blended coffee in the morning that’s half decaf, and I’m not getting much sunlight exposure these days, except for a dog walk at lunch. Other than ditching the coffee, any suggestions on how to improve my deep and REM sleep?”
First of all, Mark has shared sleep tips and written about how to crush some quality sleep quite often, and he’s always my go-to guy for information. But one of the things that jumps out at me from your question is that you acknowledge that you aren’t getting much sunlight exposure these days.
Sunlight exposure throughout the day is essential for syncing up our circadian rhythm, which has an important impact on sleep quality. This is one of the concepts I most love teaching my health coaching clients, because the notion that we need to engage with the sun at various times of the day is just so… natural. And, remember: we are nature.
Specifically, spending a few moments looking at early day sunlight helps encourage the onset of serotonin, the wakefulness hormone. Catching the mid-day rays during your lunchtime dog walk is great: it tells your body that the day is about half over. Finally, getting some exposure to the amber light of sunset tells the body to pack serotonin away and start thinking about churning out some melatonin — the sleep hormone.
Adding a morning walk and an after-dinner walk — just 15 minutes or so — is a simple way to spend just enough time in morning and evening sunlight, respectively, so you can get your sleep-wake hormones purring like a kitten.
And here are some more good ideas:
Wear Blue Blockers
Artificial light from computers, tablets, and phone screens messes with your circadian rhythm, so if you need to finish work late at night or can’t stop scrolling social media, put on a pair of blue light blocking glasses to help reduce the impact on your sleep cycle.
Get Black-Out Blinds
Even a small amount of light can disrupt your sleep. Black-out blinds are a great solution for the summer months, but can also be a huge help year-round. If new window coverings aren’t in the cards, get yourself a sleep mask.
Turn Down the Thermostat
Your body temperature always rises at night, so keep your room cool (between 60-67?F / 15.6-19.4?C) to prevent overheating. Or get yourself a ChiliPAD. You won’t be sorry. I absolutely love mine.
Skip the Drink
You might be tempted to wind down with a fine glass of Rioja, but alcohol late at night can interrupt your REM cycle too, leaving you feeling drained and groggy the next day. Alcohol can also cause you to snore more. Something to keep in mind if you care about the person sleeping next to you.
Keep your Phone Away
In addition to emitting low levels of blue light, the temptation to respond to emails, check your Instagram feed, or make late-night purchases can be hard to resist when your phone is sitting right there on the bedside table. Instead, put it out of arm’s reach, preferably in the next room.
“What are the best sleep supplements that don’t include magnesium or melatonin?”
Ask most people what they use for a natural sleep aid, and chances are you’ll be overwhelmed by folks singing the praises of magnesium and melatonin. And for good reason as they relax nerves and muscles, and help adjust your circadian rhythm, respectively.
As a health coach, it’s not in my practice to recommend specific supplements (although Mark has a great article about a few of them here), but if you ask me, there are even better sleep aid solutions that don’t require popping a pill.
Natural Sleep Remedies That Aren’t Supplements
If you’re open to the idea that you shouldn’t have to take something to get your body and mind to unwind, try deep breathing and meditation – two of my favorite relaxation techniques.
Most of us have the habit of taking quick or shallow breaths. Or worse, completely holding our breath for periods of time. When you’re getting ready for bed tonight, spend a few minutes taking slow, deep breaths, in and out from your belly. This naturally causes you to relax, which reduces the stress hormones that block melatonin (and prevent you from getting a solid night of shut eye).
Doing a body scan can also help. This is type of mindful meditation combines breathwork with consciously relaxing your muscles. When you’re ready to give it a go, lie down in a quiet, comfortable place, starting at your head and working down to your toes. Notice any areas of tension you’re feeling, then direct your breath to that spot. Research backs it up too, saying that doing a 20-minute body scan before bed can help you sleep longer and wake up less frequently during the night.6
What’s your go-to for a better night’s sleep? Tell me in the comments below.
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.