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Sleep Fundamentals || F is for Fragmentation

Fragmented sleep can break up the consolidation of sleep architecture, leading to sleep loss and daytime sleepiness

Sleep Fundamentals: F is for Fragmentation

This post first appeared July 15, 2015 and was updated on July 25, 2017.

F is for Fragmentation

Fragmentation is what occurs during sleep when you struggle to maintain one long stretch of uninterrupted sleep. Instead, you awaken frequently, and can’t get good blocks of deep sleep, as a result. It is a marker of sleep-maintenance insomnia, the kind of insomnia in which you have no trouble falling asleep, but you arouse easily and often and, therefore, cannot maintain sleep.

What makes fragmentation particularly difficult is that if you have multiple periods of awakening, you become conscious that you aren’t sleeping, but that you should be sleeping. Rumination and hypervigilance about sleep loss tend to perpetuate anxiety, which then only adds to your inability to fall asleep again. If you have ever watched the clock all night long, after falling asleep easily but waking up frequently after you’ve fallen asleep, then you are experiencing fragmented sleep.

The worry that comes with not getting good sleep isn’t without good reason. Fragmented sleep can be a nighttime devil for many.

The problem with sleep fragmentation

When your sleep is fragmented, you are less likely to cycle through the slow-wave sleep that helps your body heal. Meanwhile, you are more likely to wake up unrefreshed in the morning (because you’ve been awake, on and off, all night).

Sleep fragmentation also threatens certain brain processing functions like memory consolidation It can even interfere with the brain’s ability to keep consciousness and memory separate.

As we age, our sleep is more likely to fragment, though it’s not well understood why. It could be a normal byproduct of aging or the result of medication use or the presence of other illnesses.

People with depression and anxiety, who also have fragmented sleep, may see their mental illness worsen. Also, people with Parkinson’s Disease, dementia and other neurological troubles may report broken sleep patterns as a symptom of their condition.

Other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy, periodic leg movement disorder, restless legs, UARS and sleep apnea, may also lead to sleep fragmentation.

Treating sleep fragmentation requires identifying its root cause first and treating it. Easier said than done…  If there are no physical or mental illnesses or medications that could explain the sleep fragmentation, then doctors have little else to go on except for the presence of sleep-maintenance insomnia. Patients with this sleep disorder may benefit greatly from cognitive behavior therapy.


6 links related to sleep fragmentation, broken sleep, sleep loss, and related daytime sleepiness in SleepyHeadCentral:

  1. This is what a microsleep looks like. Bravo to Rhea Seehorn for capturing it!
  2. Generational Spotlight: Circadian Rhythm Disorders in the Elderly
  3. When naps set you up for a visit with the Insomnia Vampire
  4. Sleep Awareness Week: Can we “get along” without it?
  5. Solutions for workplace sleepyheads
  6. Poor sleep + work in construction and industrial fields = danger

Links to learn more:

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