Don’t worry, it’s probably not due to anything supernatural. Probably. Here’s a post designed to keep you informed on the medical and psychological reasons behind repeated, regular waking—as well as a quick look at some popular, more spiritual explanations.

How circadian rhythms actually work

If you’re waking up at the same time every night (and it’s worth looking at whether you truly are waking up at exactly the same time, every night), then it’s most likely that something is waking you.

That annoying disturbance could be something external in your sleeping environment, or, it could be something internal, related to psychological factors, medical conditions, or simply your sleep cycle itself.

The sleep cycle is broadly dictated by our circadian rhythm. Sleep consists of multiple stages, and circadian rhythms regulate our entrance into and exit from these stages on a daily basis, based on our deeply rooted biological clock, which is found in the brain’s hypothalamus region and interacts with cells across the body.

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, it helps to think of circadian rhythms as physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle, mostly reacting to the levels of light and dark in the environment. When our body clocks determine it’s time for sleep, they begin to increase the presence of melatonin in the body—a hormone conducive to feelings of sleepiness.

Ideally, our circadian rhythms will be neatly matched up with the times we go to bed and (wish to) wake up. However, this isn’t always the case. As demonstrated anytime you suffer from jet lag, our body clocks make for powerful alarm clocks, capable of fully waking us up when we really don’t want them too. As a result, out of sync circadian rhythms can have you waking up in the early hours at the same time every night.

What can mess with our circadian rhythms?

Caffeine, alcohol, and overall diet

Caffeine and alcohol are the world’s most popular (and socially acceptable) drugs. But drugs they both are—and each of them can have a significant effect on the body and mind for hours after they’ve been ingested. According to sleep doctor Dr. Michael Breus, for example, caffeine can still be active in the body up to 8 hours after consuming, meddling with the natural release of melatonin.

Eating late can have a similarly disruptive effect. Each stage of sleep sees our internal organs entering deeper rest and inactivity, which means that processes such as digestion slow down. If you eat or drink close to sleeping, it can result in prolonged indigestion, acid reflux, or simply a level of discomfort higher enough to wake you up.

Basically, if you regularly eat your dinner late at night, it’s possible that you could be waking due to digestive issues. As such, The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you finish your last meal at least two hours before your regular bedtime—with the word ‘regular’ being important to ensure your circadian rhythm is adjusting accordingly.

Conditioning (conscious or unconscious)

As said above, circadian rhythms are powerful, but malleable, meaning that they will adjust to different stimuli when presented with those stimuli regularly and consistently. You may notice this during daylight savings, or if you change the time of your alarm in the morning. Even though you’ve set your alarm for, say, an hour later, your body might wake you up at exactly the time of your old alarm.

In this way, people who regularly wake up at the same time each night may be responding to some sort of prior conditioning. Cleveland Clinic suggests the example of waking to feed a baby for a period of months. The child might now be sleeping through the night and so the task may be no longer necessary—perhaps you’ve returned to a regular sleep pattern since. Despite this, your mind may be reactivating that period of conditioning for an underlying psychological reason.

Being woken during light-sleep stages

When circadian rhythms do their job and we fall asleep, we begin to cycle through 5 sleep stages. The most famous of these stages is stage 5: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In this stage, the brain becomes more active while your muscles relax and are paralyzed by the subconscious mind, according to Psych Central. This is also when most dreaming occurs. To prolong REM sleep, try out these tips.

While stage 5 is a deep sleep from which it can take some time to wake up, stages 1 and 2 of the sleep cycle are much lighter. During these stages, you can be easily roused, especially if there’s some kind of stimuli in the environment. Therefore, one possible reason for waking at the same time every night is that, with a regular bedtime, you may be cycling through stage 1 or 2 of sleep at a certain point in the night and waking up.

Similarly, a loud noise of change in the environment might be coinciding with you entering one of these lighter sleep stages.

Is there something more ‘unnatural’ waking me up?

For reasons undoubtedly too complex for this post, there is a cultural association between waking at specific times of the night and the presence of spiritual, cosmic, or ghostly phenomena. Obviously, these theories are unsubstantiated, and while they might be interesting, they are probably not worth spending too much time thinking about.

However, for those curious, here are some of the most common spiritual or supernatural explanations for why you might repeatedly wake up at the same time:

  • According to the Times of India, waking regularly between 11 pm and 1 am signifies the energy meridian of the gall bladder. Apparently, this meridian is also associated with emotional disappointment.
  • Bustle reports that regularly waking between 3 and 5 in the morning signals the presence of a higher power with a message of warning. This idea, derived from traditional Chinese medicine, claims that this time frame is connected to the respiratory system, with the lungs tied to sadness, depression, and not wanting to inhale emotionally. More realistically, perhaps this idea is drawing upon the way that stress can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm.