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Waking Up Early? 9 Possible Reasons Why and How to Fix Them

You may be waking up early because of circadian misalignment, poor sleep hygiene, stress, anxiety, insomnia, age, or environmental disturbances.
Published
2022-02-02
Updated
2024-03-09
18 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Woman waking up early trying to go back to sleep

Why Am I Waking Up Early? 

  • You might be waking up early due to something in your environment, being out of sync with your body clock, or having poor sleep hygiene. 
  • Improving your sleep hygiene and getting in sync with your body clock can help you sleep through the night. 
  • The RISE app can help you build 20+ good sleep hygiene habits, and it can predict your circadian rhythm each day, so you can sync up with it.

Waking up and realizing you’ve got a few more hours left before your alarm clock rings is usually a wonderful feeling. But if you struggle to drift back off to sleep, that feeling soon becomes anxiety and irritation. And if this happens night after night, you can end up with some serious sleep deprivation.

To make matters more complicated, there are many reasons you may be waking up early and so many factors to address when you’re trying to sleep through the night. 

Below, we’ll cover the reasons you’re waking up early and what you can do to solve them. Plus, we’ll show you how the RISE app can help you get a full night’s sleep night after night.  

Advice from a sleep doctor:

“You may wake up earlier than you’d like because that’s what your circadian rhythm is telling your body to do. Try to keep a regular sleep pattern, get morning sunlight, and keep your evenings dark to keep your circadian rhythm running smoothly.”

Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

Why Am I Waking Up Early?

Many factors could be waking you up too early. Let’s dive into them.

1. Circadian Misalignment

RISE app screenshot showing your energy dip and peak times
The RISE app can tell you when your body naturally wants to wake up.

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s roughly 24-hour internal clock. It dictates your sleep-wake cycle and, when everything’s running smoothly, should match up with the light-dark cycle of the outside world and your ideal sleep-wake times. 

But if you get out of sync with your circadian rhythm, you could find your body wakes you up earlier than you’d like and you’ll be alert when you don’t want to be. 

You might be out of sync with your circadian rhythm if: 

  • You’re a shift worker 
  • You’ve got social jetlag — or have an irregular sleep routine 
  • You’re living at odds with your chronotype — like a night owl getting up early or a morning person trying to sleep in later
  • You’ve got jet lag — you may be waking up at a normal morning time back home, but way too early in your new destination 

How does this happen exactly? One reason is cortisol. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and it helps to wake you up in the morning as part of your circadian rhythm. But if your cortisol production happens at the wrong time, you may find yourself waking up early. 

This can be one reason you’re waking up early, no matter what time you go to bed. 

For example, if you’re trying to sleep in a few hours more than usual (perhaps after a late night, or to catch up on sleep after a busy week) you may find yourself waking up after six hours of sleep, perhaps around your usual wake-up time. 

The fix: Keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on your days off. If you need to catch up on sleep, snooze for only an hour or two and make the most of afternoon naps. 

If you want to sleep later every morning, you can reset your circadian rhythm and push it back. This can be useful if you’re an early bird, but need to stay up later for work and sleep in longer to get the sleep you need. 

We’ve covered how to reset your circadian rhythm here.

RISE can predict your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when your body naturally wants to wake up, and if you’re trying to sleep past this. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.

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2. Poor Sleep Hygiene 

If you keep waking up early, poor sleep hygiene may be to blame. 

Sleep hygiene is the name for behaviors you can do daily to help you fall and stay asleep each night. Get these behaviors wrong and it’ll be harder to stay asleep. 

For example: 

  • Alcohol: Drinking too close to bedtime can cause sleep fragmentation, or waking up often throughout the night. Research from 2021 says while alcohol is sedating at first, this effect wears off in the second half of the night. 
  • Meals: A 2021 study found eating within an hour of bedtime increased the odds of waking up during the night. Eating can lower your arousal threshold (or how easily you’re awoken from sleep), making you more vulnerable to things like morning sunlight or noise. Late-night meals and snacking can also cause digestive issues, which may keep you up once you’re awake.
  • Caffeine: Coffee too late in the afternoon can keep you up, of course. But research shows it can also increase arousals at night and increase light sleep, meaning you’re more vulnerable to other disturbances.  
  • Smoking: Research shows smokers report waking up earlier than desired more than non-smokers. Although, not all is lost if you smoke — former smokers report similar sleep disturbances to non-smokers.  

The fix: Improve your sleep hygiene. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ healthy sleep habits daily. We’ll cover these habits in more detail soon. 

And to learn more, we’ve covered: 

3. Stress and Anxiety

RISE app screenshot showing your relaxation times
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation exercises.

Stress and anxiety can stop you from falling asleep, but they can also wake you up in the night.

And if you wake up to use the bathroom or because of a sound, and then get stressed about falling back to sleep or about the next day’s to-do list, your cortisol levels may spike. You may then struggle to relax enough to drift back off. 

You may even be anxious about sleeping through your alarm, or accidentally hitting the snooze button and missing an important meeting. This can cause the opposite problem and lead to waking up too early. 

The fix: Try setting two alarms or different alarms (one with sound and one with light, for example) if you have anxiety about waking up on time. The RISE alarm can wake you up using multiple methods simultaneously, including sound, vibration, and haptics on your Apple watch, if you have the RISE Apple watch complication installed.

If you’ve woken up early because of anxiety, try doing a breathing exercise to get back to sleep. Breathing exercises have been proven to lower stress, anxiety, and blood pressure, and help you drift off. 

  • A 2023 study (which was co-authored by one of our sleep advisors Jamie Zeitzer, Co-Director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University) shows psychological or cyclic sighing (which emphasizes prolonged exhalations) can lower stress and anxiety.
  • A 2021 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped nurses fall asleep faster.
  • A 2014 study found paced breathing helped those with insomnia fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night. 
  • A 2021 study found deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation helped reduce anxiety and improve the quality of sleep in older adults in hospital. Although there’s no set definition for sleep quality.

We’ve covered how to do these breathing exercises here. 

And RISE can guide you through breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, and relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, in the app. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

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4. Environmental Disturbances 

It’s not always something internal that’s waking you up early. Sometimes, something in your bedroom or outside your home can stop you from sleeping for as long as you’d like. 

If you’re waking up early all of a sudden, a once-in-a-while disturbance could be to blame. 

This could be: 

  • Light: Early morning sunlight (did the clocks just fall back?) or your partner switching on the lights if they get up earlier than you. 
  • Sound: Construction work starting, traffic, your partner snoring, or family members moving around the house.
  • Heat: Sunlight warming up your room. Research shows heat during sleep increases wakefulness and reduces deep sleep, which means you could be woken up by other things more easily. 

It’s much easier to be woken up by something in your environment in the second half of the night. You can blame sleep pressure for that. This is your natural urge to sleep. It builds up all the time you’re awake as the chemical adenosine builds up in your system. 

Adenosine then dissipates while you sleep and is mostly cleared in the first half of the night. This makes you more vulnerable to being woken up in the second half of the night. And once you’re awake, you may not have enough sleep pressure to fall back asleep.

Most of the time, the circadian rhythm of your body temperature helps to stop this from happening. Your temperature reaches its lowest in the second half of the night, promoting sleep. But if your temperature is thrown off, you may find this — and other factors — can wake you up. 

The fix: Before you go to bed, make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet, and will stay that way until morning. Try setting your thermostat to ​​65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, investing in blackout curtains, and wearing earplugs and an eye mask

RISE can remind you to check your sleep environment before you go to sleep. 

If your partner gets up long before you and often flips on the lights or makes noise, consider sleeping in separate rooms, if possible. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their check environment habit reminder.

5. Pregnancy 

Pregnancy can easily disrupt your sleep and wake you up earlier than you’d like. You’ve got hormonal changes messing with your mood and body temperature, symptoms like nausea and leg cramps, and just the fact that finding a comfortable sleep position gets harder as your pregnancy progresses. 

The fix: Try taking afternoon naps to catch up on the sleep you’re missing out on at night. You may find it easier to sleep for short periods of time. Nap during your afternoon dip in energy (RISE can tell you when this is), so you still feel sleepy come bedtime.

We’ve covered more on how to sleep when pregnant here, including tips for every trimester.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen.

6. Age-Related Sleep Issues 

As we age, a good night’s sleep becomes harder to come by. You may find yourself waking up early because you need the bathroom more often, because of pain or discomfort, or from menopause symptoms. 

Another common culprit is your circadian rhythm, yet again. As we age, our circadian rhythms shift earlier. That means we naturally become early risers. 

Our sleep cycles also get shorter as we age. We spend less time in deep sleep, meaning more time in the sleep stages (like light sleep) that are more easily disturbed.

The fix: Shift your bedtime earlier to make sure you’re getting enough sleep overall. 

RISE can tell you the amount of sleep you need (known as your sleep need). Contrary to popular belief, older adults don’t need less sleep — sleep is just harder to get. 

When we compared the sleep need of RISE users, we found the median sleep need for users over 60 was 8.3 hours, while the median sleep need for users ages 24-59 was 8.4 hours; a difference of only a few minutes. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need.

7. Insomnia 

You might think of insomnia as trouble falling asleep, but waking up too early (and then struggling to get back to sleep) can also be a sign of the sleep disorder. This type of insomnia is called early morning awakening insomnia. 

And, unfortunately, the more anxiety you get about waking up early, the more you may find yourself waking up early. This is conditioned arousal, where your body learns to be awake and alert at the wrong times, like when you’re in bed.

Insomnia can be caused by: 

  • Stress 
  • Mental health issues like anxiety and depression
  • Medications 
  • Shift work
  • Health issues 
  • Poor sleep hygiene 
  • Daytime naps 

The fix: Speak to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist if you think you’re waking up early because of insomnia. 

They’ll be able to recommend the best treatment for you, which could be lifestyle changes, medication, or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). 

Counterintuitively, sleep restriction (or intentionally sleeping for less time) can help cure insomnia. This method should only be tried with professional guidance, however.   

8. Sleep Apnea 

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes your airways to close off during the night. When your brain notices you’re not getting enough oxygen, it’ll wake you up to kickstart your breathing. You may wake up gasping for breath, and then struggle to relax and fall back to sleep. 

Research shows sleep apnea episodes are also longer and more severe during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. And you get more REM during the second half of the night. 

The fix: Speak to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist if you have sleep apnea symptoms. These include: 

  • Waking up gasping for breath
  • Morning headaches 
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat 
  • Waking up often throughout the night 
  • Daytime sleepiness 

We’ve covered how to know if you have sleep apnea here.

9. Health Problems 

Sometimes, a health problem or medical condition could be waking you up early. 

These include: 

Some medications can also mess with your sleep, including: 

  • Antidepressants 
  • ADHD meds 
  • Decongestants 
  • Beta-blockers

The fix: If you’re waking up early for no apparent reason, speak to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. They can run tests for an underlying medical condition that could be to blame, or switch up your medication if needed. 

A Sleep Doctor’s Opinion 

We asked our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, for his thoughts on why people wake up early. Here’s what we had to say. 

“You may wake up earlier than you’d like because that’s what your circadian rhythm is telling your body to do. Try to keep a regular sleep pattern, get morning sunlight, and keep your evenings dark to keep your circadian rhythm running smoothly.” Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

How Can I Stop Waking Up Early?

RISE app showing when to have your last big meal
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors.

The best thing you can do to stop yourself from waking up early is to improve your sleep hygiene. 

With good sleep hygiene, you’ll be cutting out many of the triggers for waking up too early. And you’ll be giving yourself the best chance of a healthy night’s sleep overall. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get bright light first thing: Light exposure in the morning resets your circadian rhythm for the day, which will help keep your sleep cycle in check. Get at least 10 minutes of light as part of your morning routine. Make that 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Light suppresses your melatonin levels, which is your body’s sleep hormone. About 90 minutes before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses if you’re using electronic devices.
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up in the middle of the night. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily.
  • Avoid sleep aids: As tempting as it is to take sleep aids to help you sleep for longer, they come with many side effects. There’s also a risk of rebound insomnia, when you have more sleep problems when you stop taking sleep aids. 
  • Do a calming bedtime routine: Relaxing activities before bed can help you wind down and reduce stress and anxiety (especially useful if you’re getting nervous about waking up too early). Try reading, listening to music, journaling, or doing yoga. 

To remember all these behaviors, RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day and tell you the ideal time to do them.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

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Should I Go Back to Sleep if I Wake Up Early?

If you wake up early and you haven’t had enough sleep, you’d ideally want to fall back to sleep. But that’s easier said than done. If you can’t get back to sleep, try doing a sleep reset. 

Do a Sleep Reset

After 20 minutes of trying to fall back to sleep, get out of bed and do a relaxing activity, like reading or meditation. 

Avoid looking at the time, so you don’t get anxious, and keep the lights low, so you don’t wake yourself up too much. 

If you need light, try a red light night light. Research shows red light doesn’t disrupt your melatonin production or circadian rhythm as much as other wavelengths of light.

If you start getting sleepy again, great! Try crawling back into bed and getting a few extra hours of sleep.

If not, don’t panic. Simply enjoy some bonus me-time. The aim here isn’t to get back to sleep exactly, it’s to stop your brain from associating being in bed with wakefulness, also known as stimulus control.  

Keep an Eye on Sleep Debt 

While it’s not something to worry about in the middle of the night, you do want to keep an eye on your sleep debt overall. Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body. 

If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, you’ll build up sleep debt, and this can lead to lower energy, mood, and productivity the next day — not to mention a whole host of health problems. 

At RISE, we track your sleep time and work out your sleep debt over the course of 14 nights. The good news here is one night of waking up too early and struggling to get back to sleep won’t make or break your health. 

We recommend keeping your sleep debt below five hours overall. Going to bed a little earlier or taking naps can help you keep your sleep debt low if waking up early is stopping you from getting enough sleep.

Heads-up: You may need more sleep than you think. When we compared data from 1.95 million RISE users, ages 24 and up, we found the median sleep need is 8 hours. However, 48% of our users have a sleep need of 8 hours or more (and some of our users need as much as 11 hours 30 minutes a night!)

Use RISE to find out whether you’re carrying any sleep debt.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need and here to view their sleep debt. 

Sleep Through Until Morning 

There are many reasons why you might be waking up too early. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

To help you sleep through until morning, focus on your sleep hygiene. This will eliminate many triggers for waking up too early. The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and tell you the exact right time to do each one. 

Plus, RISE can predict your circadian rhythm, so you can see if you’re trying to sleep in past your body’s natural wake-up time. You can then sync up with it for better sleep and energy levels. 

And it may not take long to see the benefits — 80% of RISE users get more sleep within five days.

FAQs

Why am I waking up early?

There are many reasons why you might be waking up too early. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Why am I waking up early all of a sudden?

There are many reasons why you might be waking up early all of a sudden. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Why do I wake up at 4 am for no reason?

There are many reasons why you might wake up at 4 am for no reason. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Why do I wake up at 5 am and can’t go back to sleep?

There are many reasons why you might wake up at 5 am and can’t go back to sleep. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Why do I wake up early no matter what time I go to bed?

There are many reasons why you might wake up early no matter what time you go to bed. They include external factors, such as environmental disturbances like temperature, light, and noise. They also include internal factors, like your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and/or medical issues, like heartburn.

Should I go back to sleep if I wake up early?

If you wake up early and haven’t had enough sleep, you’d ideally want to go back to sleep. If you can’t fall back to sleep after 20 minutes of trying, do a sleep reset. Get up and do a relaxing activity, like reading, with the lights low. When you feel sleepy again, get back into bed.

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