A man who can't sleep is bathed in the blue light of screens. A man who can't sleep is bathed in the blue light of screens. Sleep can be interrupted by many things, including bright screens and other technology. (Photo: Carlos M. / Flickr Creative Commons)

Disturbed sleep is just as bad as no sleep, new study finds

Fragmented nighttime snoozing, common for new parents and doctors, is more detrimental than previously thought.

Sleep is important to mental and physical health, free, and low-impact – you don't need much to get the job done. Quality sleep is directly tied to cognitive function and moods. Yet it's much more common to hear a coworker brag about how little sleep they got rather than how much. 

Our poor cultural attitude toward sleep might be changing, with the rise of the nap room at some forward-thinking companies, but not fast enough, and the research data backing up the importance of a good night's rest is growing. A new study from Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences by Professor Avi Sadeh showed that people whose eight hours of sleep time was interrupted on several occasions functioned on cognitive tests about as well as people who had only had four hours of rest in a night. 

Each of the subjects in the test, published in the journal Sleep, was awakened four times during the night and asked to complete a basic task on the computer that took about 15 minutes. Besides functioning poorly on tests of cognitive ability, test subjects also had a hard time focusing, and reported feeling moody the next day. This tracks with what is already known about people with long-term sleep deficits: they are more likely to be depressed, feel pain more acutely, have attention issues, and have problems with decision-making.   

“We know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents – who awaken three to ten times a night for months on end – pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous,” Sadeh said in a statement.

"If a cycle is interrupted, a person may stay in the lighter stages and not reach the most physically and mentally restorative stages of sleep or get as much of them as they need." - Dr. Anne Bartolucci

It's incredibly common for all sorts of people to be woken regularly in the night: New parents top the list with the number of times they're likely to be wakened, but so do emergency workers, including EMTs and firefighters, doctors, and even shift workers on-call. But a crying baby puts a special toll on parents, who might not realize how impactful waking so often in the night can be. And the effects of sleep disruption on otherwise normal sleepers has not been studied as much as other topics related to sleep. 

Why is interrupted sleep so problematic? 

"Our brains go through different sleep stages during the night," Dr. Anne Bartolucci, founder and president of Atlanta Insomnia and Behavioral Health Services, told From The Grapevine. "Stage N1 sleep is the lightest when the brain is transitioning from wake to sleep, and Stage N3 is the deepest when the body and brain are most at rest. We also have Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep, which is important for memory consolidation and emotional processing. These stages are arranged in cycles. If a cycle is interrupted, a person may stay in the lighter stages and not reach the most physically and mentally restorative stages of sleep or get as much of them as they need."

So what to do if you are waking up multiple times a night – for whatever reason? 

The aforementioned naps can help, especially for those people with only occasional or temporary-duration sleep disturbances, like new parents. But naps (or 'catching up' on sleep at a later time) won't make up for the deficit entirely, says Dr. Bartolucci.

She advises quality, and minding good habits when it comes to dealing with fragmented nights of slumber: "New parents should make what sleep they are getting as good as possible. For example, looking at screens of any type including smartphones, tablets, computers, and televisions two hours before bed and during the interruptions could wake someone up more and further compromise sleep quality," said Bartolucci. 

New parent or not, that's good advice for better sleep. Other smart practices for better rest (experts call it "sleep hygiene") include keeping your bedroom as dark as possible while you slumber (ambient light can mess with your ability to stay asleep), sleeping in cooler rooms, using a high-quality mattress if you have pain issues, keeping electronics and TV out of the bedroom, and experimenting with white-noise machines (especially if you live in an urban area).

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