Science
Science

How Interrupted Sleep Affects You and What to Do About it

Written By: Lana Adler

Updated March 17, 2021

 

If you’re regularly waking up during the night, you’re not alone. Nearly 48% of adults (1) wake up during the night three or more nights per week. Many factors might explain your interrupted sleep, from a snoring sleep partner to your own racing thoughts.

Whatever the cause, a restless night’s sleep is frustrating. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons people rate their sleep quality as poor (2). People who wake up during the night consistently view their sleep quality as poor, while those who enjoy uninterrupted sleep tend to think they sleep well.

Waking up during the night isn’t only bad for your sleep. Disrupted sleep also has implications for your health and overall quality of life. If you’re regularly waking up at night, it’s helpful to understand why, so that you can make changes to sleep better.

How Does Being Woken Up Affect My Sleep?

To receive the benefits of a good night’s sleep, the amount of time you sleep uninterrupted can be more important than the total amount of time you sleep overall. In other words, quality trumps quantity. That’s because our sleep cycles are progressive.

Our brain cycles through the stages of sleep several times during the night, from light sleep to deep sleep to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and back again. With each cycle, our brain spends increasingly more time (3) in REM and less time in the lighter stages of sleep. During REM, our brain processes emotions, consolidates memories, and dreams.

If the sleep cycle process is interrupted, such as when we’re woken up during the night, the process starts over again. As a result, when you experience interrupted sleep, you miss out on REM most of all. Without sufficient REM, your cognitive performance and emotional wellbeing suffer.

Regularly interrupted sleep is also associated with shorter overall sleep times (4). People who have their sleep interrupted don’t always receive adequate sleep, whereas those who enjoy uninterrupted sleep are more likely to get their recommended seven to nine hours.

How Does Interrupted Sleep Affect My Overall Wellbeing?

When your sleep is interrupted, it affects all aspects of your health: physical, mental, and emotional.

Your Brain Isn’t as Sharp

After a night of interrupted sleep, your mental sharpness, focus, and attention span all suffer (5), as if you hadn’t slept at all. You may have difficulty concentrating, and your reaction time is slower than usual. This helps explain why drowsy driving is associated with an increase in accidents. You can’t react as quickly as you normally would if a car suddenly brakes or swerves in front of you.

You Have Trouble Remembering Things

REM sleep is the time your brain uses to process new learnings from the day and commit them to memory. When your sleep is interrupted, so is this important process. After a night of broken sleep, you can have trouble remembering things (6) — especially the things you learned the day before. Our minds remember new information much better when we have a full night’s sleep to process it afterward (7).

Your Risk of Alzheimer’s May Increase

During sleep, your brain flushes toxins like amyloid-beta, a type of protein that’s linked to Alzheimer’s disease (8). In studies of people who regularly experience interrupted sleep, brain imaging shows a buildup of these proteins.

Further, researchers have found a direct correlation between interrupted sleep and Alzheimer’s risk. In one study, individuals with the most fragmented sleep were 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s over a 6-year follow-up than those with the least fragmented sleep.

You Feel Grumpy

During REM, our brains process not only new information, but our feelings, too. People who regularly experience broken sleep are crankier, angrier (9), and more likely to be depressed (10) than those who sleep through the night.

In fact, a night of uninterrupted sleep is much worse for your mood than a shorter night’s sleep. Those who go to bed on time, but wake up throughout the night, are more likely to be grumpy the following day than those who simply stay up past their bedtime.

You May Get Sick More Often

When you’re suffering from broken sleep, you may find yourself getting ill more often as well. You need good, uninterrupted sleep for your immune system to function properly. With consistently broken sleep, it’s harder for your body to fight off infections and reduce inflammation.

What Are the Symptoms of Interrupted Sleep?

If you experience interrupted sleep on a regular basis, you may notice symptoms like the following:

  • Aches and pains during the day
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Impaired daytime functioning
  • Impaired focus, concentration, and creativity
  • Increased stress
  • Memory problems
  • Not feeling refreshed when you wake up
  • Poor mood

What Causes Interrupted Sleep?

A number of causes lead to interrupted sleep, from everyday stress to lifestyle habits.

Everyday Stress

Stress (11) is one of the biggest contributors to insomnia. All sorts of everyday worries, such as paying your bills or a stressful situation at work, can keep you up at night.

Mental Health Disorders

If everyday worries have become overwhelming, a mood disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, could be disrupting your sleep. Anxiety and depression are strongly associated with insomnia and interrupted sleep.

Underlying Health Conditions

Certain health conditions increase a person’s risk for sleep problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions. Up to 88% of people (12) with chronic pain, whether from an injury, arthritis, or another condition, also report trouble sleeping. Pain makes it challenging for their bodies to relax into sleep, and they may have to wake up periodically to adjust into a more comfortable sleeping position.

Other conditions, like allergies, asthma, and sleep apnea, can affect breathing (13) during the night, leading to mid-night awakenings and poor quality sleep. Still other conditions, like Parkinson’s disease (14) or a sleep movement disorder, can cause movements that wake you up during the night. Finally, an overactive bladder (15) or an enlarged prostate gland (16) can wake you up during the night with a need to use the bathroom.

Older Age and Menopause

As we age, our circadian rhythms shift (17). We get tired earlier in the evening, and wake up earlier. If you keep going to bed at the same time you always have, you might find yourself waking up earlier as you age, and your sleep may become interrupted.

Menopause can interrupt the sleep of older women. Up to 85% (18) of women with menopause experience hot flashes. When a hot flash occurs during the night, the sudden increase in body temperature and adrenaline wakes you up, making it tough to fall back asleep.

Your Medication

Various medications include sleep problems as a symptom. These medications include some stimulants, antidepressants, over-the-counter cold medicines and decongestants, and some medications for high blood pressure, heart disease, allergies, asthma, ADHD, and Parkinson’s.

An Uncomfortable Bedroom

Even something as innocent as your bedroom environment can be the culprit behind your disrupted sleep. Bedrooms that are too hot, bright, or noisy (19) can keep waking you up at night. Aches and pains from an old or unsupportive mattress can also interrupt your sleep.

A Disruptive Bed Partner

If you share your bed with a person or a pet, their snores or movements could disrupt your sleep. Women who live with snorers are three times as likely (20) to have insomnia. Similarly, those who share their bed with a dog (21), as opposed to having their dog sleep on the floor or in a separate bed, have more fragmented sleep.

Drinking Alcohol

Because alcohol is a sedative, many people believe it helps them sleep. And while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it doesn’t help you stay asleep. Alcohol (22) disrupts sleep, especially REM, and it causes you to wake up earlier than usual. Alcohol can also wake you up during the night with a need to urinate.

Too Much Caffeine

Many of us know that caffeine makes us more alert, but not everyone realizes how long it can keep you awake — even during the night. People who have caffeine are more likely to wake up during their sleep, even if they had their last cup six hours before bed (23). Caffeine can also affect the amount of time you spend in light and deep sleep.

Eating Too Late at Night

Heavy meals (24) can upset your stomach and interrupt your sleep, especially if your dinner is too close to bedtime. Late-night snacks can also disrupt your sleep, particularly if they have a high fat or sugar content.

Exercising Too Late at Night

When you exercise, your body temperature rises (25) to give you energy. For some people, exercising at night has no impact (26) on their sleep. For others, the energy boost from exercise can make it harder to settle into sleep.

Napping

If you nap too long during the day, it can reduce your sleep drive (27) later that night, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. A short, 20- to 30-minute power nap can give you a boost (28), but anything longer than that can lead to interrupted sleep.

What Can I Do to Get More Uninterrupted Sleep?

There are several strategies you can try to help you sleep through the night.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Follow a regular sleep schedule every day, even on weekends. Avoid napping during the day, especially for longer than 30 minutes and past the late afternoon. Adopt a calming bedtime routine to ease you into sleep each night. If you think exercise is keeping you up, switch your exercise routine to the morning to see if that helps.

Write Down Your Thoughts Before Bed

Jotting down your thoughts can be especially helpful if you think stressful thoughts are waking you up during the night. Get your worries out of your head and onto the paper. Spending just five minutes writing a to-do list (29) can help you fall asleep faster, according to some studies.

Watch What You Eat and Drink

Consider eating dinner earlier if you’ve been eating late. If you get hungry later, opt for a light, healthy snack that’s easy to digest. Avoid drinking alcohol past the afternoon. The same goes for caffeine. Watch out for surprising sources (30) of caffeine, too, like chocolate, pain relievers, and soda.

Upgrade Your Bedroom

Small upgrades to your bedroom can make a big difference. It may help to turn down your bedroom thermostat to 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Removing clutter can promote a sense of calm.

Light can also affect your sleep. Turning off all electronics, including your phone, closer to bedtime reduces your exposure to blue light. If the morning sunlight is waking you up too early, you may want to invest in blackout curtains. You can also use a white noise machine to mask noises from the neighborhood (or your sleep partner). Additionally, invest in a new mattress if yours is due for a replacement.

Sleep Somewhere Else

If your sleep partner’s snores are waking you up and a white noise machine isn’t helping, try sleeping in another room. If their snores are especially loud, encourage them to talk to their doctor in case they have sleep apnea. If your pet is the one waking you up, move them out of your bed and give them a dedicated spot to sleep on the floor.

When Should I Talk to My Doctor?

It’s normal to experience interrupted sleep every now and then. Stressful life events, like losing your job or grieving the loss of a loved one, can wake you up during the night. If you have a newborn, you’ll also find yourself waking up during the night for a period of time until their sleep stabilizes.

If your disrupted sleep persists, however, it’s time to talk to your doctor. They can provide recommendations for getting more restful sleep. Medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes can all help.

 

References

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