The “Wolf Hour”: Why We Wake Up at 3 a.m

Those who don’t sleep through the night often wake up at a very specific time. Around 3 a.m., many people wake up with a start and then find it difficult to fall asleep again. Instead, the carousel of thoughts spins and sleep is no longer an option. A sleep researcher and a psychologist explain why this is and how we can stay asleep better and stay asleep.

Waking up occasionally during the night at a certain time actually affects many people, says Alfred Wiater, former chairman of the German Society for Sleep Medicine and co-author of the book “Tick right” about a healthy sleep-wake rhythm. “This phenomenon is not only known to those with chronic sleep disorders; it affects all of us, even if not in such a pronounced form as those with sleep disorders. “We also talk about the ‘hour of the wolf’,” says the sleep doctor.

Apart from the wolves, no one was up anymore, Wolf Hour

The term “Wolf Hour” or “wolf hour” probably comes from antiquity and refers to the earliest hours of the morning when no one was up except the wolves. The fact that people wake up more often at this time is due to the complicated interaction of hormones, as Wiater explains. Our sleep-wake rhythm is influenced, among other things, by the hormones melatonin, serotonin and cortisol. Melatonin is considered a sleep hormone: it is released in the dark and the body then converts the “feel-good hormone” serotonin into melatonin. The body produces cortisol to protect itself from stress. For this effect to be achieved, the cortisol level should not be too high or too low.

In the “wolf hour” special biological processes take place: “Around 3 a.m. our body temperature is low and the sleep hormone melatonin is highly active. At the same time, our cortisol levels are very low, as is the level of the hormone serotonin, which normally makes us feel good,” explains Wiater. “This constellation means that we lack the positive influences of serotonin and also the anti-stress effect of cortisol.”

Although melatonin is considered a sleep hormone, if the level is too high, the balance in interaction with the other hormones, which is important for a good sleep-wake rhythm and physical and psychological well-being, is lost. “In addition, blood flow to the brain is reduced in crucial areas when we wake up at this time. As a result, we become thin-skinned and fear, pessimism and a depressed mood dominate,” says Wiater.

For these reasons, many people not only seem to wake up more easily around 3 a.m., but also often lie awake afterwards and think. In order not to remain sleepless until the morning, Wiater recommends getting up briefly: “But slowly, in stages, so that the cerebral blood flow gets going again. “You should also turn on the lights to lower your melatonin levels, maybe drink a glass of water and then try to get back to sleep.”

Psychological reasons for rumination at night

Australian psychology professor Greg Murray has also studied the phenomenon of waking up at night. In a guest article for the scientific journal “The Conversation,” Murray cites psychological reasons why it is so difficult to simply go back to sleep afterwards. At 3 a.m. not only are our physical and cognitive resources exhausted – at the same time we are completely thrown back on ourselves and our thoughts. When we start to ponder problems, it is hardly possible to find a solution: “At 3 a.m. most problems are actually unsolvable,” says Murray. It’s just that we’re not aware of it, we instead perceive things more dramatically than they really are and the thought spiral keeps turning.

Murray recommends simply concentrating on your breathing for a while, a method from Buddhist mindfulness. He also gives similar advice to Wiater: If you can’t go back to sleep after 15 to 20 minutes, you should stop trying at all costs and instead turn on the light and read something, for example. Because one thing is clear: in daylight and with breakfast toast the world usually looks completely different.

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