If you’ve ever hit the snooze button on your morning alarm, you’ll be aware of how groggy you feel when a sleep cycle is interrupted. This suggests that sleeping for a short time is worse for the body than staying up all night. In reality, this isn’t the case.
Little sleep is preferable to no sleep at all. A typical sleep cycle lasts for around two hours. If you get this much sleep, you’ll feel much better than if you don’t rest at all. You’ll still feel the impact of poor sleep in the morning, as 2 hours of sleep isn’t a sustainable lifestyle.
Constantly interrupted sleep isn’t as harmful as outright insomnia, but it’s not far behind. Start by getting what little sleep you can, then build a better sleep routine.
Is Broken Sleep as Good as Solid Sleep?
If you’re lucky enough to climb into bed at 10 pm and take up at 6 am, with no memory of the events between these two timeslots, you enjoyed a solid night of sleep. You’ll likely feel much better than if you were awakened numerous times overnight.
You weren’t necessarily asleep for 8 hours straight. You likely underwent 4-5 complete sleep cycles, with micro periods of awakeness.
Sleep cycles are broken down into four stages:
- Stage 1 – The body starts to relax, and the mind unwinds
- Stage 2 – Temperature drops, and heart rate grows increasingly slow and steady
- Stage 3 – Deep sleep, where your body repairs itself from the day’s exertions
- Stage 4 – REM sleep, or the stage of sleep in which we dream
Each of these cycles can last anywhere from 90-120 minutes. The more sleep cycles we can fit into an evening, the more rested we feel in the morning.
If these sleep cycles are interrupted, forcing us from our slumber, this is known as broken sleep.
What is Considered Interrupted Sleep?
It’s rare that any of us get to enjoy 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, especially once we reach adulthood.
As we age, we’re increasingly likely to need bathroom breaks overnight, while the stresses and strains of daily life can also lead to insomnia.
Simply waking up once in the night isn’t enough to be considered uninterrupted sleep, and that’s just an annoyance. A sleep expert would consider around 4 instances of waking and staying awake for a prolonged period as broken sleep.
Staying awake is the critical component of this equation. If you’re woken and remain awake for some 30 minutes or longer, it’ll be harder to fall asleep again, so you’re less likely to complete an entire sleep cycle.
Why is Broken Sleep Bad?
As explained by Current Sleep Medicine Reports, broken sleep is considered a form of insomnia.
The inability to get sufficient rest is linked to a range of symptoms, including:
- Inability to concentrate
- Extremely limited short-term memory
- Sluggish physical reactions
- Inability to make decisions
- Heightened levels of stress and physical pain
- General irritability
We have all experienced these symptoms at one time or another and know how debilitating they can be. If they become prolonged and habitual, all aspects of life will suffer.
Chronic insomnia has been linked to poor heart health, obesity, and according to BMC Medicine, dangerous driving. For the sake of yourself and those around you, you must always enjoy at least some sleep each night.
Broken Sleep vs. No Sleep
If you’re struggling with your sleep – either dozing off or staying asleep once your head hits the pillow – you may be tempted to stay up all night.
Regardless of how poor your sleep may have been overnight, it’s always preferable to spend at least some time dozing. Ideally, 2+ hours of sleep will conclude at least one sleep cycle.
To be clear, sleeping for 2 hours isn’t sufficient to operate at full capacity in the morning. One sleep cycle will not sustain the human body any better than one meal of 500 calories for the entire day. You’ll be tired and look forward to catching up on sleep overnight.
You’ll feel groggier when roused from an hour of sleep than you would two. That’s akin to punching the snooze button on an alarm clock, as you’re being wrenched from sleep mid-cycle. It’s still a small amount of rest, though, and a short walk around the block is preferable to an entire day on the couch.
If you don’t sleep at all, you’re likelier to struggle with the issues we discussed above throughout the day. You may feel OK initially as adrenaline carries through. Before long, you’ll fade even faster than if you snatched a couple of hours of sleep.
To re-iterate, insomnia symptoms are all likely on any night that you fail to enjoy a whole night of restorative sleep. A complete absence of rest will drastically increase their impact.
Managing a Day on Limited Sleep
Struggling through a day after a night of poor-quality sleep can be difficult. You can use a handful of techniques to make it through to the evening, where the opportunity to rest presents itself.
Begin your morning routine as best you can. You may need caffeine to aid this, but avoid packing your body with too many artificial stimulants. These may interrupt your sleep again, leading to a vicious circle.
If possible, make it through the day without a nap. If you find your energy levels flagging, indulge in a little light exercise outside in the sun. This may sound counter-productive when tired, but the endorphins will energize you for a while.
Perhaps the most important thing is identifying the cause of the night of broken sleep. The resolution is comparatively straightforward if it’s something tangible, like staying up late to finish a work project.
If you can’t quickly pinpoint why you were struggling to sleep, re-assess your lifestyle and behavior throughout the preceding day. One night of interrupted sleep can be recovered from, but you cannot make a habit of it and flourish.
How To Fix Interrupted Sleep
One of the biggest dangers of interrupted sleep is when it becomes a habit. The human body and brain are creatures of habit. You have likely noticed this with sleep yourself.
If you wake at 2 am to use the bathroom once, it’s annoying but not the end of the world. If you do the same again the following night, it’s frustrating but potentially still a coincidence. Three nights, or more, becomes a routine that needs to be broken.
Unfortunately, as per the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, habits can be tough to break. If you’re struggling with interrupted sleep. You’ll need to review your lifestyle during the day.
Ways to enhance your odds of a night of unbroken sleep include:
- Avoid caffeine and other artificial stimulants after midday.
- Get at least 30 minutes of mild to moderate cardio exercise per day.
- Don’t eat or drink for at least two hours before bed.
- Avoid napping in the afternoon. If you must close your eyes, ensure it’s several hours before bed.
You can also practice a range of techniques to resolve broken sleep. It may not be an overnight process, but you’ll eventually conquer your tendency to wake during the night if you’re patient.
Practice Sleep Hygiene Before Bed
Sleep hygiene is the act of creating and maintaining a ritual and routine before heading to bed, designed to bolster your chances of a full night of uninterrupted sleep.
Steps that should be involved in sleep hygiene include:
- Setting and sticking to a set bedtime at night – ideally, no less than eight hours before your alarm is set for the morning.
- Avoid exposure to TV, cellphone, and computer screens for at least an hour before bed.
- Take a shower to reduce your body temperature, stimulating the desire to sleep.
- Do not spend time in the bedroom unless aiming to sleep or share intimacy with a partner.
Arguably the most critical element of sleep hygiene is managing stress and anxiety. Do what you can to clear your mind before getting into bed, aiming to let the worries and concerns of your waking life fade away for a few hours.
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences cautiously recommend meditation before bed to bolster the chances of uninterrupted sleep. If this is something you can practice, it’ll likely become a beneficial component of your sleep hygiene.
Prepare a Bedroom for Sleep
As well as preparing your mind and body for sleep, you also need to ensure that a bedroom is an appropriate location. Things to consider include:
- Temperature. It’s considerably easier to sleep in a cool room. While air conditioning is the easiest way to achieve this, there are ways to keep cool at night without AC.
- Layout. If you’re struggling to sleep well at night, question whether your feng shui may be to blame. For example, did you know that sleeping next to a mirror is bad?
- Peripherals and equipment. Remove electrical appliances from a bedroom before getting into bed. There is no need to sleep next to a laptop, for example.
- Noise. Will you sleep better in silence or with ambient noise? Investigate white noise machines or free online recordings of background sounds if your find these relaxing.
If your bedroom is appropriately equipped for slumber, you’re much likelier to fall asleep quickly. More importantly, you’ll also be able to remain asleep rather than waking up several times.
Review Sleeping Positions and Arrangements
Could your sleeping position be responsible for your broken sleep? Try changing to a different posture in bed, including elevating the legs while you slumber. This may lead to a better night of uninterrupted rest.
You may also need to consider if sharing a bed, whether with a partner or a pet, contributes to your broken sleep. Is your partner snoring and keeping you from enjoying a full night of rest?
Is a pet fidgeting, making noise, or aggravating any allergies overnight?
Change Your Sleep Schedule
If all else fails and you can’t enjoy 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, consider adjusting your sleep schedule. This would involve breaking down your sleep allowance for the day into multiple chunks or reversing your sleep-wake cycle.
Ideally, never sleep for less than 2 hours, so at worst, enjoy 4 periods of sleep throughout the day. 2 blocks of 4 hours are likelier to be effective. If you establish a routine this way, your body will adjust.
Reversal of your sleep-wake cycle would involve getting 8 hours of sleep during the day and remaining awake overnight. This can be beneficial if you struggle to sleep at night due to noise in your vicinity or any other reason that makes nocturnal slumber challenging.
Obviously, this won’t work if you have a 9-to-5 job or a family. It’ll also play havoc with your circadian rhythms, which rely upon natural sunlight. If it’s the only way to enjoy sufficient uninterrupted sleep, it’s better than nothing.
When it comes to sleep, something will always trump nothing. If you find yourself awake at 3 am, with an alarm set for 6 am, don’t try to power through the next 3 hours. You can squeeze in at least one sleep cycle during this period, which will leave you feeling better in the morning.