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The Enigma of Early Morning Awakenings

5 min read

Do you find yourself tossing and turning in the early hours of the morning, wondering why you're wide awake at 4am without any apparent reason? Are you tired of your body inconveniently thinking it's time to rise at 3.45am? 

Habitually waking up in the early hours, then finding it a challenge to get back to sleep can be super frustrating. So much so, over the past five years, Google Trends has seen a +700% uplift globally in searches around the subject.

One study even found that 32 million Brits wake up worrying about their health at precisely 4.05am. The report, which surveyed 4,000 British adults, revealed that more than three fifths of us wake up in the middle of the night. 

While the phenomenon is usually harmless, if you struggle to easily doze off again easily after the invisible alarm goes off in your head, the cumulative effect can leave you drained and irritable.

If unwanted early-morning wake up calls are embezzling your Zz’ss, sleep technology firm Simba has teamed up with The Sleep Charity’s Lisa Artis to guide us through the reasons you may be waking up hours before the sun is up - and providing steps to slow down your chances of waking at anti-social hours. 



Sleep is guided by our internal clock, or circadian rhythm. One of the most significant and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle.


Sleep is regulated by the levels of two hormones: melatonin (sleep) and cortisol (stress), which follow a regular 24-hour pattern. Melatonin assists you in dozing off —and helps you stay asleep—while cortisol helps get you up and keep you awake.


Cortisol spiking too early may be to blame for our sudden alertness. This can be triggered by low blood sugar. If blood sugar drops, your body tries to protect you by trying to raise it. Cue, cortisol, and unwanted alertness. 



It’s unlikely you’ll feel hungry in the middle of the night if your blood sugar dips, which is why people sometimes struggle to make the connection. 


To reduce ungodly hour awakenings, trial alternatives for your last meal or snack of the evening. Instead of carb or sweet-based snacks, opt for protein-packed and magnesium-rich foods, like hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, spinach, dark chocolate, cashews, chicken thighs or turkey. 


Protein can take the edge off your nighttime hunger, while magnesium is known to support sleep.


Looking for an additional natural supplement? Research which measured cortisol, showed that magnolia bark extract combined with phellodendron reduced cortisol levels in the body.



The reproductive hormones - oestrogen and progesterone - are entwined with the sleep and relaxation hormones melatonin and serotonin. 


When oestrogen begins to fall before and during menopause, it can create a disturbance in the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, meaning it can’t properly balance out cortisol. When this happens, the ability to fall and stay asleep is affected.


Recurring hot flashes, night sweats, dry skin, and low libido can be signs of waning oestrogen. 



Incorporate foods with high levels of phytoestrogens into your diet throughout the day. Phytoestrogens imitate the natural estrogens found in your body. As a consequence, they can bind to your body’s oestrogen receptors and produce similar effects.


Excellent sources of Phytoestrogens include: lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy milk, ​​cabbage, garlic, onion, spinach, cauliflower, and broccoli.


Ingredients like eggs or milk also contain higher oestrogen levels because they are produced in parts of the animal's body that regulate its hormones.


Investing in good quality fabrics such as 100% cotton and linen which don’t trap heat and wick away sweat can also help reduce the severity of hot flashes which interrupt your slumber. 


Simba’s new Summer Simba Hybrid® Duvet is a wonderfully light, 4.5 Tog duvet and contains fabric technology inspired by astronaut spacesuits, called Stratos®, which cleverly regulates the temperature as you sleep - absorbing and retaining heat depending on how hot you are.

It’s also filled with a super breathable and 100% recycled/biodegradable filler called Simba Renew Bio™ - an advanced anti-allergenic material offering superb down-like comfort and quality. 



It’s natural to wake up needing to go to the bathroom once in a while, as your body is still hard at work breaking down everything you consumed during the day. But when it happens several times a night, this could be a sign of an underlying condition called nocturia. 



As a basic guide, most adults need about 1.5 to 2 litres of fluid a day. Aim to reach this before 7pm, then limit fluids before bed. As a general rule of thumb, try to drink less than a glass of water two hours before hitting the sack. Think small sips not giant slurps, which also applies during the night too.


If cutting down on how much you drink before bed doesn't put to rest frequent and bothersome loo stops during the night, talk to your GP.



Our brain divides the night in two halves. Initially, it sorts out memory, before moving onto the emotional in the latter hours. 


Rising cortisol levels, twinned with the dispensing of emotions around 4am, may be fuelling peoples involuntary wake-up calls.


Everyday stresses can also elevate cortisol (stress hormone) levels too. A particularly tense day can generate intrusive thoughts during the night that emerge as nightmares jolting you awake at 4am.



When you experience worry or frustration, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system - or ‘fight-or-flight’ response. All of a sudden, your brain turns from sleep to wake mode. 

Combat and calm the ‘fight-or-flight’ by switching on the ‘rest-and-digest’ mode. Otherwise known as turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which slows our heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure and promotes digestion. The more time we spend in this state, the healthier we are. 

Ways to activate the PSNS include: intentionally slowing your breath. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4. Hold the breath for a count of 4. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Repeat up to 10 breaths. Increase to a count of 6 if you want to deepen the practice. 

Search for “Best 432Hz music playlists” on popular streaming services. Some studies show that listening to music at this frequency is more calming for our bodies and minds than one of 440 Hz, which is the frequency that most modern day music is tuned at.

If you share a bed, cuddle up to your partner. Hugging releases oxytocin - the bonding neurochemical - and helps to send signals of safety to the autonomic nervous system. 

Yawning can also stimulate the PSNS. Even if it doesn't come naturally, intentionally can still strengthen the connection. 


Sleep cycles last around 90 minutes and we tend to average five a night. During this time, they evolve between rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Each stage of sleep also has a different threshold for how easy it is to be woken up. In fact, in the latter half of your night-time, we experience more of the lighter sleep stages, which is why when we have our brief awakenings, we are often more likely to wake up.

If you’re going to sleep at the same time each night, you’re potentially reaching the lighter stage at roughly the same time and waking up. As we age, our circadian rhythm changes and we have less of the deep restorative sleep (stage 3) and more of the lighter sleep -meaning adults can begin to wake up more often at night and experience shortened sleep duration. 


If you’re looking to work out the ideal bedtime, it’s worth checking out the calculator on The Sleep Charity website.

Manually. Start by multiplying 90 minutes (each cycle time) by five (the number of sleep cycles per night) to get 450 minutes or 7.5 hours of sleep. (Four sleep cycles would give just six hours of sleep, six sleep cycles would give 9 hours of sleep per night)

If you need to wake up by 7am, then count back 7.5 hours to find that bedtime is around 11.30pm. Make sure you’re in bed before then so you’re relaxed and ready for sleep and allow yourself 15 minutes to drop off.  You can use the sleep calculator to find the ideal bedtime for you.

It’s important to remember that the sleep calculator is just a guide to help you understand your sleep routine and to help you wake more refreshed. Always work on the knowledge on how you feel the next day after being asleep – if you wake feeling refreshed, chances are you are sleeping just fine. If you wake feeling tired then it’s likely you need more sleep, or better-quality sleep.



Our brains are brilliant at linking things. If we wake up regularly in the middle of the night, then spend hours desperately trying to doze back off, our mind starts to associate the bed with wakefulness and worry, rather than sleep. 


Break the habit by getting up. It feels counter intuitive, but if you find it hard to doze back off after 20 minutes, get up and without turning on a harsh light, make a herbal tea such as Chamomile, Lavender, Peppermint or Valerian Root. 


Avoid firing up the brain: Engaging in stimulating activities, such as checking emails, scrolling through social media, or tuning into a TV show on your mobile, can make it harder to relax and fall back asleep. The bright screens and mental stimulation can further disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Instead, opt for calming activities like reading a book or listening to soothing music.

Don’t fall into the nap trap: As tempting as it may be, resist the urge to take long naps during the day, especially if you're consistently waking up at 4am. Napping can interfere with your sleep drive and make it harder to fall asleep at night. If you really need to nap, do so before 3pm, and keep it short (around 20 minutes).

Steer clear of the buzz: Don't let caffeine and nicotine turn your sleep into a jittery jive. Skip stimulants for six hours before bedtime opting for soothing sips instead. Prepare a comforting mug of golden milk, a traditional Ayurvedic remedial beverage made with turmeric, ginger, and warm milk. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has potential sleep-enhancing and anti-inflammatory properties that may aid in relaxation and improve sleep duration.

Avoid sleep potion commotion: While sleep aids might seem like a quick fix, relying on them regularly can lead to dependence and mask the underlying issues causing your early morning awakenings. It's best to reserve them for occasional use and consult a healthcare professional for proper guidance.

Don't stay in bed: When you find yourself awake at 4am, it can be tempting to lie in bed hoping to fall back asleep. However, if you've been awake for more than 20 minutes, get up. Staying in bed may create an association between wakefulness and your sleep environment, making it even harder to fall asleep in the future.

Resist the temptation to turn on the ‘big light’: It can be tempting to turn on a bright light if you wake up, but this can signal your brain to stay awake. If you do get up, try and keep the light as low as possible while ensuring you can safely see.


Everyone wakes up at the wrong time sometimes. It’s normal. 

When your lack of sleep starts to affect your work performance, and concentration is causing you distress, it may be beneficial to consult a healthcare professional or sleep specialist for further evaluation and personalised advice.

Importantly, next time you stir from sound slumber and face those familiar numbers on the clock, know you’re not alone. 

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