Fragmented Sleep

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.

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Last Updated: Thu, October 3, 2019

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:

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:

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:


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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.

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