When it comes to our sleep, both quantity and quality are important.
Getting eight hours of shut-eye each night is great, but if those hours are interrupted by even short periods of wakefulness, we miss out on that deep and restorative rest our bodies need.
When sleep is fragmented, we wake up tired and irritable, even if we went to bed early the night before. So, it’s essential to ensure that we set ourselves up for the best night’s sleep possible by minimizing disturbances and avoiding interrupted sleep.
Interrupted Sleep: Causes, Health Effects, And Remedies
This post will look at the latest research about interrupted sleep.
First, we’ll explore some of the most common reasons for waking up during the night and examine the health effects that intermittent sleep can cause.
Then, we’ll share some expert-approved tips and tricks to avoid interrupted sleep so you can enjoy a solid, continuous night of shut-eye and wake up feeling refreshed.
What Causes Interrupted Sleep?
Some people are fully aware that they’re waking up throughout the night. They remember their periods of wakefulness and can equate their resulting symptoms to the cause.
But for others, these interruptions from sleep can be so short and minor that they don’t even realize they’re happening.
Still, the symptoms are the same. So, whether you know you’re suffering from interrupted sleep or suspect fragmented sleep is why you’re feeling tired throughout the day, it’s important to identify the underlying cause.
There are numerous reasons for lack of sleep continuity, including.
1. Stress And Anxiety
Stress and anxiety caused by life events or a chemical imbalance in the brain are among the most common reasons for fragmented sleep.
When we’re in a state of worry and unease, we are more prone to bad dreams, which can jolt us from our sleep.
Waking up with an elevated heart rate and spiraling thoughts makes it much harder to drift back off into a slumber, so these periods of wakefulness can last longer and be even more disruptive.
But sometimes, it’s not just bad dreams that are the culprit. A stressed and anxious brain can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which makes it much harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
2. Caffeine And Alcohol
Caffeine is a stimulant, and alcohol is a depressant, but both of these substances can lead to frequent periods of wakefulness and interrupted sleep.
Coffee or other caffeinated beverages consumed up to six hours before bedtime can lessen sleep quality and increase your chances of waking up throughout the night.
And although consuming alcohol before you go to bed may make you sleepy in the short term, you’re much more likely to wake up during the night.
That’s because alcohol delays and reduces the all-important REM sleep stage. Plus, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you’re more likely to wake up needing to use the bathroom.
We all know how difficult it is to sleep in a hot and stuffy room, but the air may still be too warm even if the ambient temperature feels comfortable.
Experts recommend dialing down the thermostat to 60-67°F (15-19° C) to keep your circadian rhythms functioning.
4. Light Exposure
Light is the driving force of our circadian rhythms. So, if our eyes are exposed to too much light in the hours before bed or while asleep, we have a much harder time drifting off and staying asleep.
Blue light from cell phones, laptops, and other devices is particularly detrimental. Studies show that blue light suppresses melatonin, essential for deep and restful sleep.
Both prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause interrupted sleep.
There are numerous culprits, including stimulants like pseudoephedrine, found in some cough and cold medications, and certain prescription drugs used to treat ADHD, allergies, heart disease, and hypertension, to name a few.
Plus, even some natural, over-the-counter supplements can interfere with our body’s ability to stay asleep at night.
6. Medical Conditions
A plethora of medical conditions can contribute to interrupted sleep. One of the most common sleep-disturbing conditions is nocturia, the scientific term for the frequent need to urinate throughout the night.
This widespread condition is particularly determinantal to sleep, as sufferers regularly get out of bed and expose their eyes to artificial light in the bathroom, which disrupts our circadian rhythms and makes it much more challenging to fall back asleep.
Medical conditions that cause pain, such as arthritis, are also common culprits of interrupted sleep, as are cardiovascular issues, hormonal conditions, and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.
7. Sleep Disorders
Most sleep disorders affect sleep quality in some way, and many, if not most of them, can cause fragmented sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that alters the pattern of a person’s breathing during sleep, is a common culprit, and many sufferers will not even realize that they’re frequently waking up throughout the night.
Another widespread sleep disorder is Restless Leg Syndrome, which gives sufferers the urge to move their legs, interrupting an otherwise deep sleep.
Snoring is a sleep disorder, but it deserves special mention as one of the most common causes of interrupted sleep.
If you’re a chronic snorer, you may need to realize that you are waking yourself up during the night. But if your bedmate is the one with the condition, you’ll know fully just how disruptive snoring can be.
What are the Health Effects of Interrupted Sleep?
No matter how many hours of sleep we get, we feel less well-rested and restored if we frequently wake up at night.
Getting through the day can be a struggle, and we may feel irritable, forgetful, impatient, and on edge.
Frequent periods of wakefulness lead to less time spent asleep, which comes with a myriad of health conditions associated with sleep deprivation.
But even when our time spent asleep sits within the optimal range (around 7-9 hours per night for most healthy adults), a disrupted sleep continuum interferes with our all-important sleep cycles. This leads to less time spent in the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep.
In the short term, fragmented sleep heightens stress responsivity due to increased autonomic sympathetic activation.
This directly impacts our body’s ability to regulate our internal systems, which can lead to physical symptoms like frequent headaches and gastric upset, as well as psychological issues such as emotional distress and mood imbalance.
Plus, fragmented sleep can also increase the symptoms of existing health conditions and chronic diseases.
But alongside these short-term health effects, long-term health consequences are also to consider if interrupted sleep persists.
Hypertension, weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease are just a handful of conditions that can develop over time, and some evidence suggests that prolonged fragmented sleep also increases the chances of developing certain types of cancer.
How to Avoid Interrupted Sleep?
With so many negative consequences to interrupted sleep, it’s important to minimize our chances of waking up throughout the night, so we can get the restorative rest our body needs to function and thrive.
If interrupted sleep is an ongoing, long-term issue, or you suspect the underlying cause is due to a medical condition or medication, speak with your doctor or health care provider.
That being said, in some cases, interrupted sleep can be reduced or even eliminated by making a few simple changes to your lifestyle, routine, and sleep environment.
Here are a few tips to try at home.
1. Wake Up And Go To Sleep At The Same Time Each Day
This consistent sleep routine helps to regulate your circadian rhythms, making you feel sleepier in the evenings and less likely to wake up throughout the night.
2. Avoid Caffeine And Alcohol
Avoid caffeinated beverages for at least eight hours before you are due to go to bed, and reduce or even eliminate your alcohol consumption wherever possible.
3. Create a Bedtime Routine
In the hours before bedtime, engage in relaxing activities that promote sleep, such as meditation, taking a hot bath, reading a book, and inhaling the calming scents of essential oils.
4. Dim The Lights
After the sun sets, avoid using artificial light sources with a blue or white light spectrum. Instead, opt for warm spectrum bulbs such as yellow and orange, which work in tune with your natural circadian rhythms.
Also, ensure that your bedroom is as dark as possible throughout the night, as even with our eyes closed, light can penetrate the optic nerve and trigger a hormonal response, causing us to wake up. If blackout curtains aren’t an option, consider using an eye mask while sleeping.
5. Reduce Screen Time
Avoid looking at your phone or other blue light-emitting devices in the hours before you fall asleep, and never use your devices in bed.
Also, consider investing in a pair of blue light-blocking glasses to minimize the harmful impact on your circadian rhythms.
6. Get Plenty of Sunlight And Exercise Throughout the Day
During daylight hours, try to get outside as much as possible, and be sure to find time to engage in physical activities. This will help regulate your melatonin levels in the evening and promote a night of restful, sustained sleep.
7. Eliminate Noise
Try to keep your bedroom as quiet as possible to minimize disruptions during the night. If you live in a noisy area, wearing earplugs can make a huge difference, as can using a fan or a white noise machine.
If snoring is the cause of interrupted sleep, try sleeping on your side or using a snoring aid like nasal stips or dilator to reduce the severity and volume of your or your partner’s snores.
8. Keep Your Bedroom Cool
As we discussed earlier, the ideal bedroom temperature recommended by experts is between 60-67°F (15-19° C). So, if you usually crank up the thermostat, try a cooler setting to see the difference it can make.
Interrupted sleep is a common issue affecting millions of people worldwide, and over time, it can hugely affect our health and well-being.
Even if you’re getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, fragmented sleep is much less restorative, and eventually, our minds and bodies will begin to suffer.
So, if you’re frequently waking up during the night, this post has given you some valuable insight into why and what you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. For more tips on optimizing your sleep, check out our extensive collection of sleep environment and sleep hygiene guides.