Waking up too early is a common phenomenon. Around one-third of the general population experience early morning awakenings.
Getting sufficient restorative sleep each night is the cornerstone of good health. So, awakening before your desired wake time can result in sleep loss and lead to various health risks over time.
Possible Causes of Early Morning Awakenings
You may have heard that the following factors are causing you to wake too early:
- stress, anxiety, worrying
- age-related changes
- sleep disorders
My experience as a neurologist and sleep coach has shown me that sometimes focusing on these explanations misses the root cause of why you’re waking too early.
Let’s walk through each of these one-by-one, exploring a different perspective about what is really going on.
Stress, anxiety, worry
It could be easy to believe, based on your own experience, that your stress or anxiety is what is causing your early morning awakenings.Despite wanting to sleep longer, you wake up to “racing thoughts”. It makes sense to believe that your anxious thinking is the source of your wakeup and your inability to go back to sleep. This leads people to blame themselves for being “too agitated” or ‘’my brain is too active”.
But what if I told you that your mind is VERY active, even when you are sleeping soundly? It is solving your problems while you sleep.
The key difference now is that you used to be sleeping and unaware that your brain was “ON”, still working hard and sorting out your problems, but now you’re awake and aware that it’s working.
If intense thinking is happening whether you are awake or asleep, then the “racing thoughts” are not really the problem. Something is waking you so you are aware of these thoughts.
If you have this problem, you are likely deficient in certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that would normally keep you asleep throughout the night.
Based on my experience with my patients these ‘’racing thoughts” are not something you can solve by “being calmer”. But the good news is you absolutely can address the deficiencies that are keeping your brain from performing the task of normal sleep.
There is a popular view that “old people need less sleep”. This idea has been popularized by doctors who have done sleep studies in older individuals with insomnia or early awakening. Unfortunately, why they are sleeping less is not obvious on the sleep study, but it isn’t really about the number of birthdays they’ve had.
Since sleep is how we restore and repair, why would we need less sleep as we are getting older? Maybe, instead we should view this as “We start aging faster when we stop sleeping well.”
There is a big connection between age and vitamin D production. As we age we gradually produce less vitamin D hormone per time spent in the sun, and vitamin D blood levels are directly correlated with healthy sleep.
So, do we really need less sleep as we age? No.
Is it the age itself that determines poor sleep? Not exactly.
If you understand that your vitamin D deficiency may have occurred due to reduced D production you will approach the situation differently.
You will be healthier if your body has the opportunity to heal through sleep, generally for 8 hours each night with roughly 2 hrs of deep sleep (slow wave sleep) and 2 hrs of REM (rapid eye movement). Learning about deficiency states related to low vitamin D and altered gut microbiome can give you a way to fix the deficiencies and improve your sleep, regardless of your age!
Many women experience changes in their health and sleep as a result of one or more pregnancies. When it comes to early morning awakenings, we have to ask ourselves is it the pregnancy that is to blame or again, is there a deeper root cause?
It turns out that the process of sustaining another life, as happens in pregnancy, can easily deplete mom’s vital resources, especially if she has already developed a D deficiency by staying out of the sun, using sunscreen or prior pregnancies.
Each successive pregnancy can put mom in a worse “deficiency state,” that leads to sleep disruption or early morning awakenings.
It is important to understand that the pregnancy is causing a chemical deficiency THAT is often the true cause of the sleep problems, reflux, leg swelling, back pain and fatigue.
What this means is you don’t have to believe that these issues “come with the territory” but you can work to resolve these challenges by restoring your body to proper levels of vitamins and minerals.
Yes, a sleep disorder can cause early morning awakenings. The question is, what is causing the sleep disorder? In most cases, it is not anxious thinking, old age, or pregnancy.
As you’ve learned so far in this article, the root of most sleep disorders has to do with your biochemistry. Your brain isn’t getting what it needs in order to perform the function of sleeping fully and well.
The other common cause of a sleep disorder is an anatomical issue that impacts your breathing. Luckily, both of these challenges can be treated.
Sleep Apnea: Anatomic or Neurologic Problem?
Whether or not you are already familiar with the term “sleep apnea,” this condition could be playing a role in your life and health, without you even knowing it!
Most people think of sleep apnea as an anatomical issue related to snoring, where breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. If there are physical issues preventing you from breathing properly during sleep, then it must be treated, often via CPAP machine, which is designed to open up your airway while sleeping.
But what if you had an anatomic issue and didn’t know it? What if there was no snoring at all?
For this reason, I recommend that everyone have an airway examination done by a Sleep Dentist, in order to rule out airway issues as a root cause of your sleep challenge.
That said, it is possible to struggle with a type of sleep apnea that is related to a deficiency of the brain chemicals we use to sleep normally. And that deficiency can lead to early morning awakenings.
I noticed this phenomenon as a neurologist treating what would be otherwise “healthy” mothers in their early twenties who were struggling with daytime tiredness and chronic fatigue.
It turned out that the brain was trying to go into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, but they were missing the chemicals they needed to make a seamless transition into that vital phase of sleep.
In other words, due to not having the neurotransmitters to support the task, these women were experiencing interruptions in the 2nd half of the sleep cycle, which is all about consolidating memories and maintaining a healthy, focused mind.
This article also notes that relatively mild REM-related apnea can interrupt the sleep-repair process and cause problems with health and wellbeing.
When we think of insomnia we often think about not falling asleep in the first place, but insomnia can also play a role in early morning awakenings.
In fact, Sleep Maintenance Insomnia, is a term that describes a person who wakes up and has trouble falling back to sleep.
This can happen in the middle of the night, right at the start of your REM cycle at 3:00 am. You may have the desire to sleep more but feel “too awake” to sleep, in spite of your fatigue.
All of these challenges can occur because the brain doesn’t have what it needs to perform its job, which is to help you fall asleep easily and rest deeply so you can wake up with energy ready to seize the day.
How To Stop Waking Up Too Early
In the beginning of this article, we noted the common reasons you may be told that you wake up too early.
- stress, anxiety, worry
- age-related changes
- sleep disorders
There are really only 2 core reasons for your early morning awakenings. You could be experiencing either one of these or both.
- To rule out an anatomical airway problem, if you haven’t already, see a Sleep Dentist who can evaluate your airway.
- For some people with less severe breathing problems, mouth tape is a solution that can open up nasal passages for better quality sleep
- If you have ruled out airway as an issue, or if you are using a CPAP machine but still not achieving restorative sleep, ensuring your brain has what it needs to sleep normally is your next step.
Restoring your sleep, by optimizing your brain’s ideal chemistry, can resolve your early awakenings, leading to better mental and physical health, increased energy, focus, reduced inflammation, reduced chronic pain, and resolution of gut issues.