by Charlotte Watts
Rest assured (excuse the pun) if you’re one of the many who lurch awake in the wee small hours fresh from the clutches of a nightmare, you are not alone. Around 4am, many are staring into the dark in a state of panic and angst. We often assume this is a purely psychological, ‘stress-based’ reaction and to some extent it is; nightmares occur around this time in REM sleep and are believed to be reflections of stress or trauma in our waking lives. Waking in fear to sudden awareness of sounds, light and movement may evoke visions of ghosts and ghouls, but this is in large part the result of a chain of physical events.
Sudden waking in the night can often be traced back to blood sugar irregularities during the day; rather than a drip-feed, sustained level of the sugar in our bloodstream that fuels all of our cells, we often lurch from ‘highs’ to ‘lows’ in reaction to sudden surges from refined sugars, processed foods, caffeine, stimulants and stress. This leaves us ill equipped to sustain blood sugar levels throughout the night (a long time without sustenance) and if they dip too low survival mechanisms kick in. To stop us slipping into a coma the adrenal glands signal to the liver to kick-start gluconeogenesis (literally ‘sugar-new-creation’) and they do this by giving us a shot of adrenaline.
Adrenaline is the hormone that signals the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, instantaneously preparing us for a life-threatening danger. The resultant raised heartbeat, heightened senses and tense muscles are all necessary if attacked by a tiger, but little use when we are trying to drop off. Nightmares can add to this state and combined with dropping blood sugar levels, waking becomes more likely. Modern stress response triggers are more sociologically based, but our bodies are still in hunter-gatherer mode. So worries can become exacerbated and catch us in vicious cycles of wakefulness, especially if fuelled by a disconcerting dream.
4am waking can also be linked to a shift in our metabolic states, when the body moves from anabolic (breaking down) to catabolic (building up) phase, ready for the new day. Stress in the day can unbalance the hormones that make this a smooth transition and also contribute to energy dips around the opposite shift at 4pm.
Our bodies have set patterns of functions throughout the night, including detoxification, clearance of harmful invaders and building antibodies to protect us in the day ahead. 2am to 6am is for REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep where we dream and process psychological issues. Waking naturally from REM sleep should be accompanied by energy and a positive outlook for the day, but if you have just fallen off after hours of insomnia and bad dreams this can feel worlds away.