Why Staying in Bed Doesn’t Help You Catch Up on Sleep

It’s natural to try to recover lost Zzz’s by staying under the covers, but new research shows that, while you may sleep longer after bad sleep, your sleep quality might suffer.

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If you’ve had a terrible night of sleep, due to noise, bathroom runs, work woes, or something else, it’s natural to decide you’ll sleep in a little later to make up for it.

But while you may think that you’ll make up for lost sleep with a little extra time, new research from SleepScore Labs, our partner in sleep data and science expertise, shows that it might not actually be helping you recoup all those lost Zzz’s.

The research found that even though people stay in bed longer when they have sleep interruptions, they still experience a decline in total sleep time and sleep efficiency, indicating poorer sleep quality overall.

Here’s what the data revealed about trying to compensate for lost sleep, along with some tips on how to avoid sleep interruptions from the get-go.

The link between nighttime awakenings and sleep quality

To learn more about what happens when you wake up multiple times in the night, the analysts at SleepScore studied data 1.7 million nights of sleep, from 35,216 people, ages 14 to 100. What they found is that for every interruption a person experienced in their sleep, they would spend an extra six-and-a-half minutes in bed. Now, that might not sound like a lot more time in bed if you only woke up once the previous night, but if a person’s sleep was interrupted several times they could end up keeping their head on their pillow for a half hour longer in an attempt to equal that lost slumber.

Despite spending longer in bed to compensate for the lost sleep, people ended up losing nearly three minutes of total sleep time for each nighttime awakening they had. That means a person who woke up five times the previous night would end up staying in bed nearly 33 minutes longer but still losing 15 minutes on their total sleep time. So much for trying to repay your sleep debt!

What’s more, the data showed that an increased number of sleep interruptions related to lower sleep efficiency and a lower percentage of deep sleep, indicating a poorer sleep quality overall. In other words, trying to compensate for a restless night by sleeping in doesn’t seem to work.

Further, research shows that waking up at the same time each day can improve sleep, so when you train your body to sleep in, and not recognize morning cues, your sleep hygiene can quickly deteriorate.

Sleep disturbances can lead to health problems

These results echo the findings of earlier research published by the journal Sleep in 2015. In that study, participants who were deliberately woken up during the night experienced a significant drop in deep sleep compared with those who had continuous, uninterrupted sleep, as well as those who went to bed later than usual. They also had worse moods in the days that followed.

In addition to being in low spirits, people who experience sleep disruptions may also face a higher risk of health problems, per a 2017 literature review in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep. It found that sleep disruptions may lead to changes in circadian rhythms, increased response to stress, physical pain, cognitive and memory deficits, emotional distress, and a lower quality of life in the short term. In the long run, sleep interruptions were also connected with heart problems, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic concerns, and weight-related issues.

This study, combined with the latest research from SleepScore Labs, underscores the importance of getting consistent high-quality, uninterrupted sleep.

How to stop waking up in the middle of the night

Getting an undisturbed night of sleep starts with optimizing your bedroom for slumber, says Elie Gottlieb, Ph.D., applied sleep scientist at SleepScore Labs. Gottlieb recommends keeping the bedroom like a cave throughout the night — comfortably cool (between 60 and 70 degrees), quiet, and dark. That way, you set yourself up for successful slumber and minimize the potential for external factors (such as headlights beaming in through your window) to interrupt your sleep.

There are also lifestyle adjustments you can make during the day that can help you sleep more soundly at night, says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist, and spokesperson at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“Nothing beats doing some exercise to release stress and prime the body for going to bed,” he says. “You should also watch what you eat — maybe don’t have that glass of wine or caffeinated beverage or a food that induces heartburn before bed.”

The 4-7-8 breathing technique before bed can also help you calm the mind and keep stressors at bay that might otherwise wake you up, Dasgupta adds. To try it yourself, close your mouth and inhale to the count of four, hold that breath for a count of seven, and then exhale completely to the count of eight.

When to see a doctor for sleep interruptions

Keep in mind that no matter how hard we try, we can’t expect perfect slumber every night of our lives. And as annoying as waking up in the nighttime can be, it’s a completely normal thing to do on occasion. In fact, you may be doing it more often than you realize, explains Dr. Frank Coletta, co-director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, where he also serves as director of pulmonary medicine and critical care.

“People wake up all the time — it’s called an arousal. But they never come to full consciousness to realize they had awakenings,” he says.

Of course, there are those times when you know you’re awake in the middle of the night, and if it’s happening repeatedly, your deep sleep could suffer, leading to major fatigue and sleepiness during the day. That’s not necessarily cause for alarm if there’s an explanation behind the lost sleep, even though it might leave you feeling lousy for a few days.

“Situational insomnia is not uncommon. If you had a stressful day or a life-changing event and can’t sleep, that’s not something to look into,” notes Coletta.

He notes that when those sleep interruptions happen regularly for weeks or months, and your daytime functioning and quality of life plummet, a sleep disorder or other health problem may be to blame. So, it’s important to bring these issues up with a health care professional, such as a primary care physician or a sleep specialist, especially if you’ve already tried other techniques to minimize sleep disruptions.

“If the bedroom is optimized for sleep and people still feel unrefreshed in the morning despite sleeping seven to nine hours, they should consider speaking with a medical professional to rule out common sleep disorders that often go undiagnosed and contribute to overnight awakenings, particularly obstructive sleep apnea,” adds Gottlieb.