When You Snooze, You Lose

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on December 14, 2017

We all know that our sleep habits affect how we function during the day. But did you know that the way you wake up can have similar effects?

Most of us do not wake up naturally, especially on workdays and school days. A loud alarm goes off and, depending on how long you have been asleep, you might think the alarm is part of your dream, you could wake up and greet the day or maybe you decide to hit the snooze button for a few more minutes of rest (and then a few more minutes when it goes off again).

Especially in winter, when daylight is short and the bed feels that much more cozy, hitting the snooze button can feel like you’re giving yourself the sleep you need. But in fact, drowsing back into a brief, light sleep complicates the wake-up process for your body and your brain by forcing you to wake up at the beginning of the sleep cycle. Hitting the snooze button results in fragmented sleep, which is less restorative than uninterrupted sleep.

The groggy period between waking up and being fully alert is known as sleep inertia, and it has a negative effect on:

  • Memory and cognition
  • Reaction time
  • Alertness and ability to focus
  • Decision making

Studies have found that even when people feel as though they are fully awake, the cognitive effects of sleep inertia can last for several hours.

This includes commuting time and the beginning of the work/school day, when decisions are made, tests are taken and vehicles are driven. According to the study cited above, “The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society.”

So how can you avoid sleep inertia while still feeling like you are getting enough rest? Researchers offer several tips:

  • Establish and stick to a regular bedtime routine that allows for 7 to 9 hours of sleep
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment
  • Wake up with the sunrise instead of with a pre-dawn alarm (or use a gradual light alarm instead of an app on your phone)
  • Avoid eating, drinking alcohol and using a backlit screen for 2 to 4 hours before bedtime
  • If you take naps, limit them to about 20 minutes

And when the alarm goes off in the morning, get out of your "comfort zone" and start your day.

According to Sameh Aziz, M.D., pulmonologist and sleep specialist in Carilion Clinic’s Sleep Center, sleep inertia can be a symptom of more chronic health issues.

"Sleep inertia can represent an underlying sleep disorder, like sleep apnea and delayed sleep-wake phase disorder," he said.

If sleep inertia persists or if you have concerns about the quality of your sleep, consult your primary care provider.

Dr. Aziz offers additional advice for those suffering from insomnia and sleep changes that develop with aging