Fragmented Sleep: What It Is, What It Does, and How to Fix It

Do you feel tired when you wake up, even when you get enough sleep at night? You might be experiencing symptoms of fragmented sleep.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Many people wake up during the night. In fact, it’s normal to wake up once or twice each night, so long as it doesn’t take you too long to fall back to sleep. Fragmented sleep, on the other hand, is any type of disruptive sleep interruption.

Fragmented sleep can look different depending on the cause. You can generally split these interruptions into two groups: those who realize that their sleep is disrupted and those who don’t.

For instance, new parents are typically awoken at all hours of the night, leading to poor sleep quality and the resulting daytime fatigue. Others may fall asleep quickly but wake up often and find that they have trouble falling back asleep. These people know why they are experiencing daytime drowsiness, memory problems, and other symptoms of sleep deprivation.

But there are others who endure excessive micro-arousals that they may not realize are happening. These people can get seven or more hours of sleep at night, but experience troublesome symptoms that lead them to see their doctor to figure out the cause.

In this article, we will explain the negative effects of fragmented sleep, what causes it, and what you can do to find relief.

The Negative Consequences of Fragmented Sleep

Sleep plays a central role in our mental and physical health. Proper sleep supports memory and learning, immune system function, energy levels, mood, food cravings, and the ability for our bodies to heal.

Many of the beneficial effects of sleep are dependent upon the successful completion of around four to six complete sleep cycles each night. Sleep cycles last roughly 90 minutes and are made up of distinct sleep stages.

Shortly after sleep onset, our heart rate, temperature, and brain waves begin to slow. This occurs during stage 1 and 2 sleep. Stage 3 sleep is when our brain waves have reached their slowest. This stage of sleep is particularly significant when it comes to how rejuvenated we feel come morning. Our last stage of sleep is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is where most of our dreaming occurs, and it’s particularly important for learning and memory.

Fragmented sleep can disrupt this natural cycle, leading to a variety of symptoms related to sleep deprivation. Sleep interruptions are particularly troublesome when they occur during the latter stages of our sleep cycle. Interrupted sleep during stage 3 sleep can lead to feelings of fatigue and grogginess the following day. And disturbed REM sleep is likely to result in a variety of cognitive difficulties.

Common symptoms of fragmented sleep include

  • Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: If you experience daytime fatigue in spite of getting the right amount of sleep, it could be that you are waking up during the night without realizing it.
  • Weight Gain and Unhealthy Food Cravings: Insufficient sleep alters the hormones that influence how hungry we feel. When your sleep is fragmented, you are more likely to crave unhealthy food and eat more food than you need. Over time, this can lead to weight gain.
  • Heart Disease: While we sleep, our blood pressure varies. When we experience poor quality sleep, this can negatively impact this flux, potentially leading to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
  • Cognitive Difficulties: Short-term memory loss, the inability to focus, and trouble learning new things can signal sleep difficulties.
  • Snoring: Some people who snore at night experience trouble breathing. This can result in frequent waking and repositioning to allow the brain to get enough oxygen. Total sleep time and sleep quality can suffer.

What Causes Fragmented Sleep

There are three main causes of fragmented sleep:

  1. Biological: A variety of biological conditions can result in fragmented sleep. This includes sleep disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy.
  2. Environmental: A new baby, our partner’s snoring, or a bad sleep environment can lead to time spent awake at night.
  3. Chemical: Alcohol, caffeine, and pharmaceutical drugs can lead to a disruption of our natural sleep/wake cycle.

How to Fix Fragmented Sleep

To fix fragmented sleep and the resulting side effects, you must first figure out what’s causing it. If the cause is a sleep disorder or prescription medication, working with your doctor is the best way to address the problem. But if it is environmental or based on alcohol or caffeine intake, simple lifestyle changes may be all you need to find relief.

To encourage a restful night’s sleep

  • Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption late in the day
  • Use white noise to minimize the impact of snoring or other external noises
  • Keep your bedroom cool, around 66 degrees
  • Set up a comfortable sleep space with a good mattress, pillows, sheets, and blankets
  • Turn your phone to airplane mode while you sleep
  • Use blackout curtains to keep your bedroom dark

Conclusion

Fragmented sleep can make your daily life a struggle. To help support your mental and physical health, work to improve your relationship with sleep. This may be as straightforward as making some lifestyle changes, or it might require a visit with a sleep specialist. The goal is to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start your day.


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