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Sleep is supposed to replenish our energy through the night and prepare us for the next day. If you are getting the recommended amount of seven to nine hours each night, that is probably the case, but if you are experiencing fragmented sleep, not so much.
Sleep fragmentation occurs in some people, and the problem with them is not falling asleep, that part usually passes without a problem; but staying asleep. People who typically experience it wake up many times during the night, and they have troubles falling back to sleep.
While sleep fragmentation is not classified as a sleep disorder, it is a definite symptom of many of them, including sleep maintenance insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and more. Lack of sleep also leads to excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, morning headaches, impairment of memory, focus, and mood. When fatigue becomes chronic, it can lead to weight gain, elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular problems.
Why You Shouldn’t Overlook Sleep Fragmentation
Sleep fragmentation is described as many brief arousals during the night. These are not the typical microarousals that everybody experience during sleep. Microarousals are natural, and they occur during the transitions between sleep cycles. You don’t recall them later, and they don’t cause daytime fatigue.
Sleep fragmentation, on the other hand, involves awakenings that a person can recall in the morning. People who are experiencing them are often struggling to fall back to sleep, which leads to less sleep time and daytime fatigue.
Disrupted sleep is more than just annoying. It can lead to some severe health consequences including weight gain, cardiovascular problems, impaired mood, memory, and concentration. Scientists have observed that a night of fragmented sleep can lead to similar effects as skipping rest. That’s due to the less time spent in the deep restorative stage of sleep.
If you are regularly experiencing sleep fragmentation, you may be suffering from a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia. People who have this condition have no problem falling asleep, but they can’t stay asleep. There is also a condition called sleep onset insomnia, and where people have a problem falling asleep instead of maintaining it.
Experiments on animals have shown that sleep fragmentation can induce tumor growth. Lack of sleep also leads to increases oxidative stress in the brain so that sleep fragmentation can lead to increased insulin production and activation of some mechanisms that serve a protective purpose in brains.
Causes of Fragmented Sleep
Sleep fragmentation isn’t listed as a specific disorder, and while it is relatively common, its exact prevalence is unknown.
There are occasional situations when sleep fragmentation occurs. It can happen when you are feeling ill, and coughing or a sore back is keeping you awake. New parents also experience disrupted sleep, due to many wakings during the night, to care for their newborn. This kind of sleep fragmentation is entirely reasonable, and it doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the person. When the disturbances are over, sleep restores to normal.
Fragmented sleep can be a result of a sleep disorder, including sleep maintenance insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. Treating these conditions should lead to better sleep quality.
Sleep fragmentation can be a result of daytime habits as well. Poor sleep hygiene, alcohol and caffeine consumption, exercising too close to bedtime, and not timing or napping too much during the day. Improving those habits should restore your sleep to normal.
Some people sleep in two intervals during the night with a long wake period in between. That is not considered fragmented sleep, it is classified as a biphasic sleep, and a lot of people sleep that way.
Sleep Fragmentation Diagnosis
If you are experiencing sleep problems and have decided to visit a sleep specialist, they might use Sleep Fragmentation Index (SFI) to measure the level of sleep disturbances that you experience. The SFI is shown to be a quick and reliable method, and it compares your nighttime awakenings, shifts between sleep stages, and your total sleep time.
A doctor might instruct you to a stay at a sleep facility for an overnight study called polysomnography. Sleep technicians attach you to a bunch of electrodes that track your brain waves, heart and respiration rates, your chest, limb, and eye movement. Besides that, they observe you to see if there is any snoring or some other unusual behavior. Polysomnography is a golden standard when it comes to determining the quality of sleep, and it gives doctors all the information they need about your nightly slumber.
If you are not comfortable staying for an overnight study, they might ask you to keep a sleep diary for a week or two, as well as provide your medical history and medication use. Sleep diaries are easy to maintain, and anyone can do it. You write down different kind of information about your sleep including:
- The time you go to sleep each night
- How much it took you to fall asleep (sleep latency)
- When you wake up in the morning
- If you have experienced any disruptions during the night
- How rested you felt after waking up
- If you have taken any naps during the day
- How energized you were during the day
If that seems a bit complicated, they can also give you a small device that is worn around the wrist, and it tracks your movement and heart rate. This method is called actigraphy, and it is pretty useful in determining whether you are sleeping or not.
All of these methods will provide sleep specialists with enough information to determine the cause of your disrupted sleep and to prescribe you the right treatment.
Sleep Fragmentation Treatment
Treatment for sleep fragmentation usually involves treating any underlying sleep disorder that might be causing it; like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome.
Melatonin supplements can be very useful in getting better quality sleep, and they can be bought over the counter in any pharmacy.
Changing your sleep habits and maintaining good sleep hygiene will improve your sleep quality. You should try doing the following:
- Allow yourself to get tired and sleepy. It means that you should better manage or completely avoid naps. Sleepy people are less likely to experience fragmented sleep.
- Exercise regularly but make sure that you don’t do it to close to bedtime as it can leave you laying in your bed wide awake.
- Set a sleeping routine, and stick with it. It means that you should go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Staying late, or sleeping in on weekends can seem like a good idea, but you should only do it if you are sleep deprived, and you need to make up for lost rest.
- Ban all the electronics from your bedroom. Screens emit blue light that can disrupt your circadian rhythms, and it can make it harder for you to fall asleep. That’s why you should remove the TV and laptop from your bedroom, and avoid looking at the screens at least an hour before bed.
- Remove any disturbances from your bedroom. Shut your windows and fix any leaking faucets you have in your home. If you can’t completely block the outside noise, consider using earplugs or white noise machine.
- Besides keeping your bedroom quiet, you should also keep it dark and set the temperature you prefer. Consider getting warmer color light bulbs, get a block out curtains if it’s needed, and pick the right temperature.
- Buy a comfortable mattress, pillow, and bedding. This can drastically improve your sleep, so think about replacing your old or uncomfortable items.
- Avoid drinking caffeine eight hours before bed. You should also avoid nicotine, as those are stimulants and they can keep you up at night and increase the number of nighttime awakenings.
- Avoid drinking alcohol a few hours before bedtime, and also don’t drink too much fluid before going to bed. Too much liquid will make you have to go during the night, and it might be hard to fall asleep afterward. Alcohol stimulates synthesis of a neurotransmitter called vasopressin. More vasopressin means less protein called aquaporin. The primary function of this protein is the transport of water through the membranes of our cells. When there is less aquaporin in our urinary tract, less water will be reabsorbed, and that means that we will have more urine to excrete. That is why drinking beer will make you go to the bathroom so many times.
- Consider getting a sleep tracker. These devices can be pretty useful in giving you some insight about your sleep. Wearable ones also have many more purposes, including fitness tracking, GPS and advice to improve your sleep habits.
Advice for new parents
Having a baby can be very stressful, and worsen the quality of your sleep. There are a few things you can try to get the best rest possible:
- Share night shifts with your partner. Someone can take the first half of the night, and the other can take the second. That way you’ll get some sleep, and be ready for a new day of parenting.
- Turn the baby monitor down. Babies often produce a lot of sleep noises, so responding to every sound won’t be beneficial for you or your baby’s sleep.
- Keep the lights off during nightly diaper changes or visits, as bright light may suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for your sleep.
- Develop healthy sleeping habits. Ban screens from your bedroom, exercise regularly and make a nice relaxing bedtime routine for yourself after you put your baby to rest.
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Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.