Sleep Health

Why do I wake up at 3am?


Getting a good night's rest is vital for both mental and physical health. And while getting to sleep may be easy, research shows that enjoying a lasting, restful sleep may be difficult for some of us.

If you’re noticing a pattern of waking up in the middle of the night, you’re one of the 58% of Australians who don’t enjoy a full night’s rest.

According to the ResMed 2024 Global Sleep Survey, more than half of the population of Australia are unable to sleep soundly throughout the night without waking up. 53% of Australians also say that poor quality sleep leaves them feeling excessively tired during the day. And almost a quarter (23%) of Australians have experienced interrupted sleep for as long as they can remember.1

Sleep impacts many aspects of our lives, and our lifestyle choices may also impact our sleep. In this article we break down the possible reasons and the practical steps to help you sleep through the night.

How cortisol affects your sleep

Cortisol is a natural hormone that is linked with metabolism, diet, physical activity, and stress levels. Lifestyle choices can affect cortisol levels, and cortisol is a response to stress.2

Cortisol Naturally Increases in the Morning

Cortisol peaks during daylight hours in the morning to help you wake up and stay alert. It naturally decreases throughout the day and melatonin, another hormone, increases in the evening to replace it.

Cortisol and Your Sleep/Wake Cycle

Cortisol and melatonin work together as part of your natural Circadian rhythm - your 24-hour biological clock – to regulate your sleep-wake cycle.  

Cortisol primes you for action during daytime, and melatonin helps you relax and feel tired to prepare for sleep. These hormones are triggered by exposure to daylight, following the natural rhythm of nature.3


With our brightly lit modern environments, artificial light mimics daytime hours for much longer. This makes it difficult for cortisol levels to drop, keeping you in a state of heightened awareness and higher stress levels.

In addition, the use of electronic devices, especially before bedtime, exposes you to constant blue light. This triggers elevated levels of cortisol, and at the same time, blue light also suppresses levels of melatonin.

In the evening, melatonin levels should increase to ease you into a relaxed state for a restful sleep. But this constant imbalance in your cortisol due to blue light exposure keeps us in a state of stress, and your sleep suffers. And this frequent pattern of sleeplessness or interrupted sleep may lead to longer-term insomnia.4

How to fall asleep again after waking up at 3am

If you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, you don’t have to resign yourself to a night of stressful sleeplessness. You can get back to sleep.

First: Keep them separated

Your bed is for sleeping, not struggling with sleep.  

When you’ve woken up or are tossing and turning, and sleep seems like a lost cause, begin by removing yourself from the bed or bedroom7. Keep your bed or bedroom as a designated space only for sleep, and that involves the times you’re struggling with sleeplessness.

This small act can be the pivot you need to switch your mindset around how you see your bed and bedroom.  

Maintaining this separation will help you associate your bed and bedroom with only restful sleep and is part of a good sleep hygiene routine.

Put away your phone or other screens

Resist the temptation to distract yourself with devices. Now that you understand how bright or blue light can increase the stress hormone cortisol, think of avoiding any electronic devices such as tablets, gaming consoles, phones and bright lights. Remember that looking at a screen can only make things worse.

If you do need something visual to distract yourself from stressful thoughts, then old school printed materials like books, magazines or graphic novels are great alternatives. 

Simple breathing exercises or meditation

Breathing is something we do unconsciously, but simple mindful breathing has been shown to soothe our parasympathetic systems.5

Deeper breathing sends a signal to our brain and bodies that we are safe and allows us to go into a state of relaxation. It’s a simple act that anyone can do to bring some calm to the day.  

Gentle movements that are linked with mindful breathing like Tai Chi, light stretches, Qi Gong or slow yoga may also help you.  

Meditation can also be a way to still the mind. Whether it’s a gentle guided meditation, focusing on your breath or a visualization, meditation has been shown to aid in relaxing and priming the body for sleep.6

Meditation or breathing exercises are a practical way to relieve stress and ease yourself back into sleep. 

How to sleep through the night

Staying asleep all night long is possible. Just like any healthy habit, a few simple actions to start with can make a big difference. You just need to stay with it.

Set a personal bedtime routine  

Set a personalised bedtime routine and stick to it.  

Consistency is key.

Repetition creates a stable habit. And when this habit is associated with familiar feelings of rest and relaxation, the routine can reinforce these feelings.  

So, the more you keep to the same bedtime routine, the more you build on feeling relaxed and primed for a tranquil rest.

With repeated positive outcomes, your personal bedtime routine can be associated with a good night’s rest. And it can eventually become a seamless part of your life that you won’t think twice about.  

Examples of a healthy bedtime routine include:

  • Going to bed at the same time every night
  • Dimming lights before bedtime
  • Playing soothing spa music or pink noise
  • Have dedicated sleep attire – pyjamas, eye mask, socks
  • Avoid stress before bedtime – don’t look at work or news
  • Avoid caffeine, sugary drinks or heavy meals
  • Avoid screens and devices before bed

Customise these proven methods by adding your own preferences so you look forward to this routine.

Consider what makes you feel relaxed? What colours and smells help soothe you? How can you make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep? Choose elements that work for you and incorporate them into a healthy sleep routine.

Avoid screens before bed  

Yes, this was already included in the above sleep routine, but it’s so important we’re saying it twice.

Do not use screens for your entertainment or to wind down before sleeping. Remember the impact that screens and blue light have on your cortisol levels and your long-term sleep quality.  

Use this knowledge and encourage yourself to avoid screens before bedtime. Find alternatives to electronic devices when winding down before bed.

Consider using blue light glasses

Despite all our best intentions, the reality is that sometimes we have to use screens before bedtime. Whether it’s for family or work, our digital connections are part of our modern lives. Whilst completely stopping the use of devices 2-3 hours before bedtime is ideal, if you must use them, then consider ways to reduce your blue light exposure.

These 2  products are designed to help with resetting sleep/wake cycles.  Backed by research and scientifically proven, these are a natural and non-invasive way to help you change when you sleep.


Re-Timer Light Therapy Glasses


Swannies Night Glasses

Maybe you’ve just started struggling with sleep or maybe interrupted sleep has always been a part of your life. Just remember that understanding the possible causes and making informed decisions can make an impact.

Practical tweaks in your bedtime routine and some small changes can help you feel sleepy and stay asleep for longer. We hope you’ve learnt some useful ways to regain control over your sleep journey. 

If you’d like to learn more about your sleep (or the sleep of someone you know) our simple Online Sleep Assessment may be able to help.     


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Cortisol. Cleveland Clinic.


Stress and Insomnia. Sleep Foundation.


Deep breathing and relaxation. Counseling Center. The University of Toledo.


Meditation for Sleep. Sleep Foundation.


Up in the middle of the night? how to get back to sleep. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2021, August 8).



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