July 10, 2014 at 5:21 PM ET
The baby cries and you spring from your bed. The dog hogs the bed and you wake again. The garbage truck jolts you out of your sleep.
For many of us, a solid eight hours of sleep is a pipe dream. Even an uninterrupted six seems like a fantasy. A new study found that interrupted sleep is as unhealthy as getting no sleep at all.
“I think it was interesting. [The paper] is one of the first forays into looking into the impact of interrupted sleep,” says Dr. Charles Bae, a sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, who was not involved in the study. “We do know a lot about the impact of sleep deprivation and [now] we are getting more information about the impact of interrupted sleep.”
To understand restless sleep, Avi Sadeh, professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences, equipped 61 young adults with a wristwatch-like device called an actigraphy, which monitored their dozing. On one night, everyone slept straight through the night. The next morning they completed a few computer tasks to assess their cognitive ability and a survey that evaluated mood. On a different night, a phone call woke the subjects from sleep four separate times and they had to perform computer tasks for 10 to 15 minutes before dozing again. The next day they completed the computer tasks and mood surveys.
After experiencing interrupted zzzz’s, participants flubbed the computer exercise, struggled to pay attention, and felt lousy and moody. Sadeh and his colleagues found that people with interrupted sleep functioned as poorly as people who only received four hours of sleep.
“The affected functions are usually those related to attention and concentration. This may result [in] poor performance in learning … and memory function,” writes Sadeh via email. “You may think that this is obvious, but previous research hasn’t really addressed [the impact of interrupted sleep] systematically.”
People who have interrupted sleep have slower reaction times, struggle to pay attention, make poor decisions, suffer from depression more frequently, and feel pain more, says Bae. Poor sleep can impact physical health as well, increasing blood pressure and making it tough to lose weight, for example. Bae says when his patients start getting more sleep, they’re better able to shed a few pounds.
If someone experiences interrupted sleep for more than a week, Bae recommends that they see a doctor.
“The more a person can sleep and take care of any interruptions, the better off they will be in general,” says Bae. “[People need] to make sleep a priority.”
But what about new parents who have no choice when it comes to interrupted sleep? It is likely that their discomfort and physical problems are temporary, but there is no research on the long-term effects.