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Microsleep: What Causes It and How To Stay Safe

Updated on May 28, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O.
Article written by
Annie Keller

Being asleep while being awake. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but it’s a real phenomenon called microsleep. It doesn’t literally involve being asleep and awake at the same time, but it is similar. Microsleep is a result of sleep loss and insufficient sleep levels, and it can be a high-risk problem. Here’s what it is and how it happens.

What Happens in Microsleep?

Microsleep is defined as short periods, around 15 seconds or so, where a person enters a light phase of sleep. (There are four sleep stages. Microsleep involves the first, lightest one.) It doesn’t look like a normal sleep phase; most microsleepers have their eyes open the whole time. However, since it involves a loss of consciousness, it can be dangerous — especially if the person who is microsleeping is driving or doing something that requires serious attention. Warning signs of microsleep include a blank stare, blinking of the eyes, and the head snapping upwards.

What Causes Microsleep?

The exact cause of microsleep is unknown. It is associated with sleep deprivation. Some researchers speculate that microsleep is a neurological response to sleep deprivation, and it exists because the brain is trying to reset itself to a properly rested phase of brain activity.

Microsleep also seems to be more common during monotonous tasks. One sleep research study had participants engage in a simple, repetitive task – tracking a moving object on a screen with a joystick. The study recorded an average of 79 episodes of microsleep per hour per person, some lasting up to six seconds. Reaction time was also slowed by the microsleep episodes.

Since microsleep is associated with sleep deprivation, it’s no surprise it has been linked to sleep disorders. Narcolepsy is associated with microsleep, and obstructive sleep apnea, hypersomnia, and schizophrenia are also conditions where microsleep is an increased possibility.

When Is Microsleep Dangerous?

If all you’re doing is sitting at home on the couch, microsleep might only result in nodding off for a minute. But since most people don’t spend all their lives on the couch, microsleep has the potential to cause serious problems. Even a small episode of microsleep can cause problems with decision-making.

The biggest danger from microsleep is when it happens on the road. It’s estimated that 1 in 6 fatal car crashes and 1 in 8 crashes requiring hospitalization in the U.S. are caused by drowsy driving or some other form of sleepiness. Since driving is both a repetitive activity and one that requires constant attention, it’s a prime situation for microsleep.

Driving, of course, is not the only activity that can be affected by microsleep. Train conductors, air traffic controllers, pilots, and any other profession that requires constant attention can have serious, even fatal, consequences from microsleep. The Chernobyl disaster and the 2016 London tram derailment have been connected to microsleep or lack of sleep.

Managing Microsleep and Staying Safe

The simplest way to prevent microsleep is to get enough sleep (seven to nine hours of sleep is the recommended amount for most adults). If the only problem with sleeplessness was not going to bed at the right time, microsleep would be an easy problem to fix. Most sleep problems, however, are not as simple to solve.

Other than being well-rested, microsleep has no cure. For those with narcolepsy who experience excessive daytime sleepiness and insufficient sleep overall, being well-rested is a challenge. However, microsleeping can be managed, even amongst those who have problems getting enough rest.

Sleep Hygiene

A regular routine set for bedtime is one way to make sure you will get a good night’s sleep. Here are some suggestions for this routine.

  • Go to bed at the same time every night. Your body will begin to associate that time with sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature that is not too hot or cold. Extremes in temperature can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Have a relaxation routine for about thirty minutes before you go to sleep. Read a book or take a warm bath.
  • Keep electronic devices turned off. Don’t get on your phone or watch TV before you go to bed. If you read a book before bed, make it a paper one. Make sure there are no bright lights or disruptive sounds in your bedroom.
  • If you can’t fall asleep after a short period of time, get up and do something for a few minutes, like read or listen to music. Staying in bed worrying about how you can’t fall asleep can make sleep deprivation worse.
  • Avoid caffeine or alcoholic beverages late in the day.
  • Don’t stare at your clock. Seeing time go by can make sleeplessness worse. Turn the clock so it doesn’t face your bed if you can’t stop looking at it.
  • If you happen to wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep right away, try reading or listening to soothing music. Be sure to keep the lights low.

Napping

While napping is something most people associate with childhood, it can still have uses as an adult. Even a few extra minutes of sleep can reduce instances of microsleep. It’s important to time nap periods so they don’t cause you to wake up groggy and less alert. Thirty minutes is enough to help you feel refreshed without going into a deeper sleep phase that will be harder to awaken from. If you have the time, 90 minutes to two hours can provide the benefits of all of the stages of sleep and is usually easy to wake from without feeling groggy.

Taking a Break

It’s not always possible to nap during the day, but if you are dealing with lack of sleep, there are ways of conserving energy. Taking breaks during repetitive tasks helps with focus. It also helps to move around during those breaks, even for a minute or two.

Lifestyle Changes

Sleep routines aren’t just about when and how you go to bed. Several overall changes in your daily habits can improve the quality of your sleep.

  • Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day. It may be best to avoid a vigorous workout less than an hour before bedtime.
  • Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can all disrupt sleeping patterns. If avoiding them late in the day doesn’t seem to help, cut them out entirely.
  • Eat a nutritious diet. A well-balanced diet keeps energy levels constant and can make it easier to sleep. (Don’t eat shortly before you go to bed; it can make it harder to fall asleep.)
  • Make sure you drink an adequate amount of fluids during the day, but don’t drink so much close to bedtime that you will wake in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
  • Deal with stress. Anxiety about falling asleep can lead to sleep deprivation, as can worrying about what might come tomorrow. If there’s something you need to remember for the next day, write it down. Set down your priorities every day, and deal with them before you go to bed.
  • Don’t hit the snooze alarm when you wake up. It’ll just make you feel groggier.

While microsleep can seem frightening, it’s possible to avoid it or make it less frequent. A better sleep schedule, naps, and taking good care of your health can change microsleep from a dangerous problem to an occasional inconvenience. Talk to your neurologist or doctor to create the best plan for managing your symptoms.

Are you dealing with microsleep? Do you have any tips to establish a regular sleeping pattern? Comment below or start a new conversation on MyNarcolepsyTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Allen J. Blaivas, D.O. is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in Critical Care Medicine, Pulmonary Disease, and Sleep Medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Annie Keller specializes in writing about medicine, medical devices, and biotech. Learn more about her here.

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