What is Junk Sleep? And How to Fix It

Waking up feeling groggy and foggy? It could be Junk Sleep. Learn what it is, how if affects you, and how to get rid of it.

Bearded young man is lying in bed under his blanket. He cannot sleep and is watching something on his mobile phone.
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How did you feel when you woke up this morning? Groggy? Foggy?

If so, you may be suffering from Junk Sleep.

And it's time to unjunk it. If you don’t feel well-rested when your alarm goes off, or you find your energy levels dragging before your day has even gotten started, it could be time to improve your sleep situation.

Read on to learn more about Junk Sleep, including the symptoms and the best ways to solve your Junk Sleep problems.

The definition of Junk Sleep from a leading sleep specialist

According to Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, sleep specialist, and author of “The Sleep Solution” and “The Rested Child,” if you looked up Junk Sleep in the dictionary, you might find this entry:

Junk Sleep: n. Sleep that is not optimized for maximal health and wellness benefits. I.e. "Carl likes to sleep with his phone in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He argues that sleep is sleep, but I think his is total Junk Sleep."

You can think of Junk Sleep like junk food: While an occasional cupcake or doughnut is probably fine, eating only potato chips for dinner every night will deprive you of the critical nutrition you need to help you thrive.

Similarly, Junk Sleep is sleep that’s not long enough, nor high-quality enough, to sufficiently nourish our brains and bodies.

“Good nutrition does not stop with simply consuming a food item,” Winter, a Sleep.com Advisor and Clubhouse Sleep Secrets host, points out. “That's the beginning of good nutrition, not the end goal. It's the same with sleep.”

And, like any fad dieters who fixate on a single meal solution, many Americans today think their sleep problems can be solved simply by sleeping longer, rather than sleeping better.

“It's fantastic that we are opening people's eyes to the idea that they need adequate sleep,” he says. “Now, we need to go further to make sure that ‘extra’ sleep that they are securing is the highest quality sleep... and not Junk Sleep.”

How common is Junk Sleep?

Woman looking tired and sick in the morning after a night of junk sleep
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Bad sleep is a chronic, widespread issue in America. Does Winter consider Junk Sleep an epidemic?

“Absolutely, and it's not a new one,” he confirms.

“Falling asleep in the living room with a television shining light in your face and blaring noise is a daily report from my patients in my clinic,” Winter says. “Are those patients getting sleep in that situation? Yes. It is healthy sleep? No.”

Winter’s observation is supported by data from SleepScore Labs, which found that two out of three Americans are sleeping less than the CDC’s recommended seven hours per night for adults.

All that lost sleep adds up to a staggering 74 billion hours of missing sleep per year. (Yep, that’s billion — no wonder we’re all feeling so tired!)

“Twenty years ago, nobody really cared about sleep,” says Winter. “Now, as time has passed, people are starting to think about sleep as a modifiable variable, like diet and exercise.”

With that increased awareness, people can shift that focus from just hours slept to quality of sleep, but asking questions like “How do I optimize my sleep?” and “How can I make it better?”

What are the symptoms of Junk Sleep?

If, like one of the characters in those Junk Sleep commercials, you’ve sent a message with embarrassing typos or you accidentally replied-all on an email thread to your entire company, Junk Sleep could be a contributing factor.

According to Dr. Winter, the symptoms of Junk Sleep can be wide-ranging and include but are not limited to:

  • Excessive sleepiness and fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Low energy
  • Mood disturbance (depression, anxiety, crankiness)
  • Irritability
  • Brain fog
  • Forgetfulness and memory decline
  • Body pain and chronic pain
  • Declining health
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Dull appearance
  • Digestion/GI issues
  • Attention issues

Junk Sleep’s negative impacts

Woman laying her head on her desk with coffee cups in the background
Maskot/Getty Images/Maskot

Our performance at work and at home can be measurably impacted by bad sleep.

In fact, according to a 2016 report, sleep deprivation among working Americans costs the country’s economy up to $411 billion a year.

And it’s not only affecting us at work. It affects our daily lives in ways that can have tragic consequences. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can impair our judgment similar to alcohol’s effect. According to 2016 research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, missing two to three hours of sleep a night quadruples the risk of a car crash. It’s frightening to consider that your nanny, your taxi or ride-share driver, or your children’s bus driver could be suffering from Junk Sleep.

According to Winter, the biggest negative impact is that Junk Sleep represents a silent handicap that is often mislabeled or misdiagnosed as something else altogether.

“Sleep problems can take a long time to properly recognize and treat, because humans are good at adapting,” he says. “The effects on our work, family life, relationships, general and mental health are beyond comprehension.”

What causes Junk Sleep?

Between tossing and turning, waking up at 3 a.m. for no reason, night sweats, and other common sleep disruptions, we found that there are many internal and external factors waking Americans up in the night.

Some of the most common sleep disruptors include:

Junk Sleep solutions

Getting more, higher-quality sleep doesn't have to be a hassle.

Improving your sleep hygiene can make a big difference. Get started with these 10 science-backed sleep hygiene tips.

Meditation apps, adult bedtime stories, box breathing, ASMR videos, and/or gentle stretching in bed can also help. The same goes for reducing your nighttime exposure to blue light from gadgets and screens. Just say no to doomscrolling on your phone!

When you're ready to take your sleep health to the next level, consider tracking your slumber with a wearable — like the Apple Watch or Whoop — or an app. Monitoring your sleep over time will give you a better understanding of the type of sleep you’re getting as well as help you identify any important patterns — good or bad — like often you awaken during the night.

Many of these tools can also help you optimize your sleep schedule, meaning the time you go to bed and wake up every day, so you can up-level your sleep quality and get enough REM and deep sleep.

Could your mattress be to blame for Junk Sleep?

Your mattress could, indeed, be the cause of Junk Sleep.

If you’re sleeping on an old or sagging mattress, or one that’s not right for your sleep position or any particular sleep comfort needs you have, you may not be set up to achieve the quality rest you need.

“Even though a mattress may be designed to structurally support you for 10 years, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be comfortable,” says Mattress Firm Sleep Expert Stephen Ferguson. “Your needs, comfort preferences, injuries, health conditions, and other considerations can become a major issue over time.” Similarly, your needs can evolve due to age, physical issues, lifestyle changes, and other factors.

For help deciding whether you need a new mattress, here are 11 signs that it’s time to replace your mattress plus tips on how to choose a new one.

If you need a little extra help, Mattress Firm's interactive MattressMatcher tool can help you quickly find the best mattresses for your specific sleep needs.

It's time to solve the Junk Sleep problem, America.