Why am I waking up at 3 a.m.?

Posted by Lala Naidu on

Do you sleep soundly at night? Do you wake up feeling rested and restored? Or do you wake up in the middle of the night and not able to fall back asleep? For several weeks, that last scenario was my experience up until 2 weeks ago. It was not fun, nor healthy, so today, I’d like to address the likely cause of waking up in the middle of the night and how to remedy it.

Science has found that our cells work following a Circadian Rhythm – a natural internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycle along with other processes and repeats every 24-hours. Living in alignment with these natural rhythms is critical for optimal health and sleep.

One way that rhythm can get misaligned is through the chemicals released in the body in response to stress. The outer cortex of the adrenals produces the hormone cortisol in a gradual and consistent way, in response to stress, especially chronic stress. Stress can be of various kinds – intentional stress from exercise, meeting deadlines, exposure to toxicity in the form of chemicals in our environment, radiation, excessive and repetitive thinking, addiction to social media, etc. Some stress is part of living and helps us adapt and evolve, however, it’s the ongoing chronic stress that wreak havoc on our physiology.

Cortisol does help regulate many important processes in the body, however, under chronic stress, the release of cortisol is excessive and the rhythm is off. Instead of being naturally high in the morning and then fall throughout the day, the cortex starts releasing cortisol more than just a few hours before dawn, having you get up to prepare for the big tasks ahead, and with cortisol coursing through your body, you feel wide awake and anxious.

This is a vata condition, a disturbance of prana vata. Vata has the qualities or gunas of mobile, light, subtle, rough, and dry, so to treat we implement the opposite – grounded daily practices and routines. In a previous episode, I went over the steps of Ayurveda’s evening routine called Raticharya, please see the link to this video below; this is a good place to start in addition to the following.

  1. Meditation is the best medicine – it’s like taking out the trash of your mind daily.1 I suggest sitting in the same place every time that way the energy builds up and will start beckon you to come sit. Ssit in a relaxed posture and watch your breath move in and out of your nostrils; that’s it! Start with 5 minutes 2X daily.
  2. Practice being regular with your daily routines – schedule work, when you eat, exercise and go to bed around the same time every day. If needed, write it out and stick it on your fridge until it becomes habit.
  3. In addition to eating your meals around the same time daily, focus on foods that are easy-to-digest like a one-pot meal like kitchari; and 3 square meals, meaning no snacking in between. Drink fluids instead 6-8 glasses daily.
  4. If digestion is compromised – leaning toward constipation and gas, sip warm ginger tea and consider taking the classical Ayurvedic herbal formula Triphala.
  5. Sun gazing early in the morning or just being outdoors exercising in the morning supports melatonin production at night. Sunbathing is also the preferred way to get vitamin-D.
  6. Move your body in harmonious and rhythmic ways to move excess energy but without aggravating vata further – Qigong, Tai’ Qi and restorative yoga are great options.
  7. Consider supplementing with melatonin – a hormone that your body produces in response to darkness and helps with sleep. Start with a small dose 1-3 mg, and incrementally build up if necessary. I found 3 mg to be a perfect circadian reset.2

Feeling calm and grounded in our bodies is key to a full night’s rest. The practices I went over today along with the evening routine will help pacify vata. Stress can be subtle, so please take some time to evaluate habits in your life that may need shifting – it is really a question of what you’d like to cultivate individually and the level of health you’d like to experience.


  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726
  2. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/melatonin-what-you-need-to-know
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