A Sleep Expert Hacked My Schedule & Now I Snooze Through The Night

I finally stopped waking up at 3 a.m.

How to stop waking up in the middle of the night, according to a sleep expert.

If you wake up in the middle of the night, have you ever noticed that it’s usually around 3 a.m.? While it seems like such a random time, it’s actually the prime wake-up hour for stressed-out, high-cortisol girlies — and I definitely fall into that category.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time I go to bed or how relaxing I make my evening routine. Without fail, my eyeballs spring open at three and then I stay awake for at least another hour or two. Not only is it annoying to constantly wake up in the middle of the night, but the lack of sleep starts to add up.

To get some answers — and hopefully a few solutions — I got a sleep consultation with Dr. Anna Persaud, a biochemist, sleep expert, and CEO of the brand This Works, a line of sleep-inducing skin care products (like magnesium-packed lotions and a pillow spray beloved by Sarah Jessica Parker).

As we chatted about my sleep habits, we eventually zeroed in on a potential explanation for why I wake up at the same time every night, as well as a potential fix — and it wasn’t what I expected to hear at all.

Waking Up At 3 A.M. Is Common

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According to Persaud, a lot of people wake up at 3 a.m. — but it’s not great if you stay awake for hours afterward.

Everyone goes through multiple 90-minute sleep cycles throughout the night, and at 3 a.m., your cortisol levels naturally start to rise to prepare you to wake up in the morning. Most people don’t remember stirring at three, as they’re able to immediately fall back asleep. I, however, always fully wake up.

Persaud speculated that my middle-of-the-night wakings could be caused by an excess of the stress hormone cortisol, which likely gathers in my body as I go about my day, stare at screens, and have existential crises.

Her take is that I get to the top of my 90-minute cycle at three and then — because I already have a lot of cortisol in my body from daytime stress — my levels go just a touch too high, and it causes me to fully wake up.

Resetting My 24-Hour Clock


In an effort to snooze all the way through the night, I’ve curated the chillest bedtime routine around. Still, it doesn’t always help. Here’s the deal: Instead of cramming all your relaxation in right before bed, Persaud recommends thinking about your sleep routine on more of a 24-hour basis in order to match your body’s natural circadian rhythm.

To do this, she suggested that I add little habits into my day that will reset my internal clock. One big tip? Getting outside and walking first thing in the day in order to burn off the cortisol from the night and alert my brain that it’s morning. This should help to reset my circadian rhythm so that my cortisol and melatonin levels are rising and falling appropriately.

After that, I’d take another quick walk right before the sun goes down to essentially say, “Hey brain, it’s time to get ready for the night.” This helps your eyes take in the darker light so that you can register that the day is coming to a close, and it’s especially helpful if you stare at bright screens all day.

Take 10-Minute Stress-Free Breaks

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To keep my stress in check, Persaud also recommended I take two 10-minute cortisol-free breaks throughout the day. This is where I’d step away from my computer, phone, and emails and simply ~exist~ for a few minutes.

“They call this restorative rest time,” she says. “Your hands should not be moving or doing things on phones, and your eyes need to be not staring at screens. This gives the nervous system time to down-regulate or relax.” Basically, if you can manage your stress more throughout the day, it'll be less likely to wake you up in the middle of the night.

Adjusting My Habits For Better Zzzs

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The day after talking to Persaud, I got up bright and early to take my dog for a walk, making sure to fully take in the sunlight. It sounds simple, but I could actually feel myself registering that it was the morning — and I did feel more awake.

Later in the day, I stepped away from my computer to sit on my stoop for a few. It was strange to not have my phone in my hand, but it did give me a sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced since B.C. (Before Cellphones). I repeated the 10-minute quiet time in the middle of the afternoon, which is something I never do. My brain is always on, but it was nice to give myself a chance to chill.

Right before the sun went down, I popped outside again for a quick stroll and really enjoyed the golden hour. (Pro tip: This is a prime time to take selfies.)

The Verdict

After taking Persaud’s advice for a week, I’ve found that I’m a little more chill overall, and that has actually translated to better sleep. On the days when I forget to take my two 10-minute breaks, I realize that I wake up more dramatically at 3 a.m. — which is shocking, as they’re just mini Zen-outs, but they make a big difference come nighttime.

When I do all the best practices Persaud recommended, I feel more like a person instead of a pile of stress... and one who is way better at sleeping. They may be simple hacks, but they work — and I definitely recommend them to anyone else who deals with middle-of-the-night wake-up woes.

Studies referenced:

Bowles, NP. (2022). The circadian system modulates the cortisol awakening response in humans. Front Neurosci. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2022.995452.

Hirotsu, C. (2015). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Sci. doi: 10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002.

Petrowski, K. (2021). Increase in cortisol concentration due to standardized bright and blue light exposure on saliva cortisol in the morning following sleep laboratory. Stress. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2020.1803265.

Reddy, S. (2023). Physiology, Circadian Rhythm. 2023 May 1. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. PMID: 30137792.

Touitou, Y. (2011). Désynchronisation de l'horloge interne, lumière et mélatonine. [Internal clock desynchronization, light and melatonin]. Bull Acad Natl Med. PMID: 22812159.