Do You Bolt Awake at 3 a.m.? Low Blood Sugar Symptoms May Be to Blame

Stabilizing low blood sugar levels by day is the key to stopping the 3 a.m. wake-up. Here's how.

Early morning wake-up calls often are simply one of many low blood sugar symptoms.

© Nicholas Moore | Dreamstime.com

You’re exhausted and you need your eight hours of sleep, but you suddenly bolt awake around 3 or 4 a.m., energy coursing through your veins and mind churning anxiously. What gives? Waking up in the middle of the night is simply one of many low blood sugar symptoms.

Why Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar Can Cause You to Be Awake at 3 a.m.

Sleeping through the night represents a long period without food when blood sugar can drop too low. This is bad news for the brain, which depends on glucose for energy. The brain is highly active at night, transforming short-term memory into long-term memory,[1] and carrying out repair and regeneration.[2]

In response, the adrenal glands, two walnut-shaped glands that sit atop the kidneys, release stress hormones. These stress hormones raise blood sugar back to a safe level. Unfortunately, stress hormones also raise, well, stress. Hence the anxious awakening during night’s darkest hours.

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Eating at 3 a.m. Can Help You Fall Back to Sleep

A quick fix for this and other low blood sugar symptoms (below) can be as simple as eating a small amount of protein—with perhaps some fat thrown in—when you wake up too early. This could a spoonful of nut butter, a few pieces of meat, or a hard-boiled egg. Some find this stabilizes blood sugar levels enough so they fall back asleep.

Do not, however, eat something starchy at this time, such as bread or cereal, as it will spike blood sugar levels, causing them to drop too low again.

Daytime Tips to Avoid Waking Up at 3 a.m. Every Night

Although a quick snack may help you fall back asleep, it’s better to prevent waking up in the first place. If you are waking up regularly at 3 a.m., chances are you suffer from low blood sugar symptoms. Signs of low blood sugar include:

  • Sugar cravings
  • Irritability, light-headedness, dizziness, or brain fog if meals are missed
  • Lack of appetite or nausea in the morning
  • Caffeine dependency for energy
  • Eating to relieve fatigue
  • Energy crash in the afternoon
  • Night sweats

A diet that stabilizes blood sugar levels by day will also sustain you during the night. To remedy your low blood sugar symptoms so you can sleep through the night again, avoid foods that lower blood sugar and consider implementing the following strategies:

  • Eat a breakfast low in carbohydrates. This is hard for people with low blood sugar symptoms as they typically abhor the thought of eating in the morning, but it’s mandatory for resolving your symptoms. Force yourself to eat a breakfast rich in protein, such as eggs and bacon (DO NOT eat a starchy breakfast, such as pancakes, pastries, or cereal), and you will soon find your morning appetite returns. It is healthy and normal to wake up hungry.
  • Eat a little protein and fat every few hours to keep blood sugar levels stable. As your blood sugar handling improves, you will find you can go longer between snacks and meals without crashing.
  • Adopt a lower-carbohydrate diet. People with low blood sugar symptoms typically eat a diet too high in carbohydrates: breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, desserts, sodas, coffee drinks, energy drinks, fruit, juices, and more. Everyone’s daily carbohydrate needs differ, but stay under 150 grams a day starting out, although you may need to go lower.
  • Ditch the low-fat diet. Fats are like the big log that can sustain a fire for hours, whereas carbohydrates are like kindling, which burn quickly. A diet that includes ample natural fats (no processed vegetable oils or hydrogenated fats) will keep low blood sugar symptoms at bay so you can sleep through the night.

How do you know your diet is working, or if you need to adjust your carbohydrates lower? When your blood sugar is stable enough to fuel the brain’s night shift, you’ll no longer get that 3 a.m. wake-up call!


[1] Guzman-Marin R,  Suntsova N, Bashir T, Nienhuis R, Szymusiak R, McGinty D. Rapid eye movement  sleep deprivation contributes to reduction of neurogenesis in the hippocampal dentate gyrus of the adult rat. Sleep. 2008 Feb 1;31(2):167-75.

[2] Gais S, Born J.  Declarative memory consolidation: mechanisms acting during human sleep. Learn Mem. 2004 Nov-Dec;11(6):679-85.


Originally published in 2012, this post is regularly updated.

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Comments
  • You need carbs when you’re active.
    I do weight training.
    If i don’t eat carbs, my muscles will disappear.
    I’ve already tried a low-carb diet.

  • Tricia N.

    Thank you this is most helpful. I will now go and put it into practice.
    Tricia

  • Susan N.

    I’ve been waking at 3 and never considered that it could be a blood sugar issue which I experience during the day. I’ll try the middle of the night protein snack and hope for the best.

  • Greg H.

    The blood sugar thing is very likely the problem for a lot of people; but if addressing that does not seem to help, there are other possible causes, especially for people who already have an excellent diet.

    According to Julia Ross [http://www.dietcure.com/fat_is_not_the_enemy.html]:

    “It turns out that, among other things, omega-3 is an MAO inhibitor, meaning it paralyses the MAO enzymes that destroy mood-boosting brain neurotransmitters like dopamine. Believe it or not, these fats can even be over-stimulating to some people. If you find yourself waking up bright and alert at 4 a.m. after too much omega-3 supplements, you’ll have to cut back.”

    In the comments section on a different health-oriented web site I pointed this out to another commenter who had tried and tried all the usual remedies for this same problem, but to no avail. He replied a few weeks later to say that after years of suffering, just cutting back on his omega-3 supplements did indeed completely solve his problem with waking up in the middle of the night.

  • CHAMPAK S.

    I have a DRY mouth – and wake me up – at 3 or 4 am – I thought it was a sign of high sugar ??
    can any one explain ? I do NOT check sugar …

    Started taking Metformin ( 1000 mg ) ER – and helped a lot – reduced frequency

  • Thomas D.

    I wake up with tons of energy. .and ready to concur the world. But then I crash so bad I just wanted to go back to sleep. I’m eating right and getting enough sleep. But now so exhausted. .blood sugar?

  • Paula S.

    I went low sugar (25 grams or less per day) for 8 weeks which almost put me into the hospital 3 times. My GI went haywire, my liver enlarged, my gallbladder had issues, my pancreas had issues, my stomach bled and I couldn’t sleep. I went back to a high carb diet and slowly my world is almost back to normal but my 9:50 mile time running went to 13 minutes due to muscle wasting. I do get up at 2-3 am everynight though often with a panic attack out of nowhere, I think I run out of glycogen, maybe repairing muscle since I work out everyday. I don’t know. I’m also fatigued in the afternoons. I want to quit sugar but I get so sick when I do.

  • Great article thank you! I will save some calories for the night instead of trying not to eat at all (and failing)

  • I do all of this and I am so frustrated. I am non-diabetic hypoglycemic…its hereditary, not prediabetc. Ive had this since I was a teenager and I am now 40. I eat a high protein diet, small portions every few hours, low carb (and only complex carbs) cut out all sugars and I still wake up in the middle of the night, eat and have trouble going back to sleep. I have lived on 3 or 4 hours sleep this past year and I cant do this anymore. Sleeping pills dont help, I am forever exhausted and at this point would rather be diabetic because I would have some highs at least instead of constant lows since there is no medication for low sugar. I cant even exercise because that lowers blood sugar. Im tired of eating constantly and this is what I am sentenced to for the rest of my life but how can I sleep more than 4 hours a night?

  • I have the same problem and have battled this for about 20 years. When I wake up I normally need to use the bathroom. If you find any solution that helps you let me know. Thank you.

  • I have hypoglycemia. Wake up every night at 3:00 with moderate hunger pains. The only food that I can eat that gets me through the night is a slice of toast. Then I am able to sleep longer.

  • Jessica

    I find if I eat about 6pm foods such as cheese and lettuce, milky porridge, cauliflower cheese and turkey, banana, camomile tea, white rice and chicken, all of these can help settle me down to sleep. Try to eat foods with melatonin or tryptophan. Dairy products are good at this time. Avoid anything high in iron or vitamin c as well as caffeine. Caffeine takes 10 hours to leave your system and vitamin c/iron and other fruits make you alert.

  • Hi,I am currently training for my first half marathon and I have changed my diet massively,I’m eating a lot of protein foods minimal sugar loads of fruit and veg and the only dairy I have is eggs,I find myself waking up at 3am every morning with dry mouth and need to rush to toilet straight away,would u suggest adding a small amount of sugar to my diet like a chocolate bar a day could this help me ? Thanks

  • I wake up at about 5 a.m. I make a whey protein shake with whole milk every night before I go to bed when I wake up, I drink my shake and I can go back to sleep. I used stevia and a small amount of coconut sugar to sweeten the shake. This helps me to go back to sleep. On the days that I run I increase the amount of protein in the shake. I’m going to try reducing my processed sugar intake during the day as well. Great article. Thanks!

  • Ted D.

    I have been suffering with sleep maintenance insomnia for about 17 years. Five doctors and fur nutritionists could not find my problem until recently a new acupuncture nutritionist studied my symptibs questionare and figured out I have low blood sugar. He recommended a high animal protein diet atleast 3x a day with protein snacks and good. Arbs in between. I have been sleeping much better and have cut back on the sleep meds substantially but still can’t get eight full hours without that brain wake up alarms at 4, 5 or 6 AM. Too early. Can you suggest anything else to help me get those valuable eight hours of sleep to really feel good. I’m stick of the headaches and morning long hang over of Intermedzzo RX. Thank You.

  • I have been on a no sugar low carb diet for years..I lost a heap of weight but it finally caught up with me. I collapsed and ended up in emergency. The cause was hypoglycemia and low potassium. The hypoglycemia causes my potassium to run dry and alot of people do not know this could be happening to them to. Previous to collapse I had warning signs, yes indeed would wake up at 3am in a state of panic, rapid heart beat cold weak faint disorientated chest pains etc.
    Low carb high protein is not good and shld not be advised especially for people with hypoglycemia . Protein does NOT raise blood sugar levels.
    I eat a spoonful of natural oats with a little honey before bed. All my food is now Low GI. I always keep some orange juice banana , jelly beans near my bed incase of big drop. After excersice is my worst moments . High protein diet actually made me worse…
    I’ve put on a little weight by not being so strict with carbs but I wld rather live as its a serious condition of not PROPOLY attended to.

  • I’ve been waking up at 4 AM (fall daylight savings) and at 5 AM (Spring) for years. I am happy that I have found this article and I am experiencing this “low blood sugar” as we speak. I ate 2 tablespoons full of peanut butter because I didn’t have anything else, high in protein. Drank half a glass of water because I am dehydrated when I wake up after 3-5 hours of sleep. I am starting to feel a little sleepy now. I believe if I close my eyes and relax, I’ll be able to fall back to sleep. Thanks so much for the article. It has been helpful. I’ll schedule an appointment with my doctor to perform a women’s health check and see if I have anything wrong or unhealthy with me this year? I am 37 yrs old and have always been healthy. I’ll prepare a protein diet to test within this week to see if I am able to sleep longer? Thanks again. I’ll comment back about my results.

  • raul b.

    hi friends … please note that women are usually most prone to low blood sugar than men , when they have a lot of carbs. the sugar spikes and then falls really low.

    if you really truly wish to have good good uninterrupted sleep.. instead of eating rice etc at night… before sleeping you must have a few spoonfuls or a small bowl of curd… / yoghurt

    you will sleep like a baby and love us indians for giving you such a wonderful tip

    remember yoghurt mixed with your salad or yoghurt mixed with your rice or bread etc at night.. will ensure your sugars are at a comfortable place throughout the night … and you should wake up later in the morning

    of course yoghurt being something that could give you a cold , make sure you dont overdo.. and if you mix yoghurt in hot food it sort of warms up .. tastes different .. but will not end up giving you a cold … rather than just having cool yoghurt out of the fridge.

    also people with diabetes , please do not mix your yoghurt with carbs at night…
    yoghurt can be mixed with steamed veggies add the spices you like etc.
    the yoghurt will ensure no dips happen so you shouldnt wake up and in most cases not even have a nightmare .. since yoghurt has iodine and it will ensure the thyroid is regulated through the night …

    always give yoghurt a break ,,, as in have it for say a week at night … and then stop for a few days .. this is to ensure you dont have blocked nose, cold etc.

    hope this helps… and remember do not eat anything in excess .. thinking that yoghurt helps lots of people overdo yoghurt… just eat moderately … because yoghurt has live cultures and you dont want to overload your system even with good bacteria because then that becomes bad for your health and intestines and may cause haemorrhoids to appear or worsen, irritable bowel syndrome et.

    remember that moderation is the key but yoghurt is a virtue that if used moderately is fantastic

    please make sure

  • I am confused now. I wake @3am wide awake & heart pounding. Sometimes I eat a couple of bits of chicken before bed but I still wake up & I’m starving & shaking. Some of the responses here say to ear protein & fat before bed others say to eat a carb to raise blood sugar. I though carbs spike blood sugar then drop sharply. I am having extreme exhaustion (CFS) I haven’t been hungry during the day & sometimes nausea. I am going to eat more during the day high protein & I also eat a lot of veggie. Can someone pls tell me which it shld be? Carbs or protein before bed.

  • So happy I found this site.I am a diabetic.Have been waking up after only 1.5 hrs of sleep and usually cannot get back to sleep for 3-4 hours makes for a long night.I never connected it with type 2 diabetes. I am never hungry during the day just force myself to eat a little something. But at 3 am I could sit down and eat a full meal.Thank you so much for this article.

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