What Is Microsleep? Benefits, Causes, Tips And Warnings

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If you’ve ever had the experience of being in an airplane seat, SO tired that you fall asleep for a fractio of a second and then JUMP back awake, you’ve had what’s called ‘microsleep’.

Here’s the thing:

Getting the right amount of rest is something every individual should strive for since sleep plays a crucial role in our health. However, most people don’t have the time or discipline to lead a healthy sleeping schedule.

One of the first indicators is the feeling of afternoon sluggishness, which turns into moments of actually dozing off for a couple of seconds.

Most of us experienced a situation in which we missed the red traffic turning green and some of us even woke up due to the head jerk, which snapped us awake.

If you experienced any of these things, you’ve actually experienced what is called a “microsleep.”

But how does it work?

What exactly is Microsleep

Microsleep (MS) refers to short, temporary episodes of sleep or drowsiness, which usually last for a fraction of second, up to 30 seconds.

Some episodes can even last for up to two MINUTES.

In fact, microsleep episodes often occur when a person’s eyes are open but they seem awake.

They most often take place without us even realizing, as you fail to respond to arbitrary sensory input, and become unconscious.

Microsleep happens when an individual loses awareness and subsequently gains it after a short lapse in consciousness. These sudden shifts between wakefulness and sleep are manifested as droopy eyes, slow eyelid closure, and head nodding.

Anyone who is tired, works night shifts, has a sleep disorder or suffers from sleep deprivation can experience these short bursts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation, associated with microsleeps, increases on-the-job errors, increasing the chances of accidents, and car crashes.

Is it NREM or REM?

Typically, there are two main stages of sleep we all go through, a rapid eye movement stage (REM), and non-rapid eye movement stage (NREM). Both of these stages have their own characteristics, which set them apart.

Microsleep, however?

Well, it doesn’t fall into either of these categories of sleep. The MS episodes are too brief and don’t last long enough for any of the characteristics of either state of sleep to emerge.

One of the main characteristics of microsleep is a decrease in activity in wakefulness-related regions of the brain and an increase in sleep-related regions. We know what causes microsleep, but its internal mechanics are still somewhat unknown to us.

Studying MS is difficult since there are no clinical tools developed for diagnosing microsleep. One other reason why it’s difficult to diagnose is that it can be triggered not only by a lack of sleep but by monotonous tasks, as well.

Of course, individual variability in brain structure also makes it difficult to diagnose microsleep successfully. Objectively, at least.

What Causes Microsleep?

Lack of sleep is the main cause of sleep deprivation, and subsequently, microsleep episodes. Sleep deprivation isn’t just a cause of these episodes; it’s also very detrimental to our health. People who have low quality sleep tend to experience micro sleep more often.

We all know the importance of sleep, and just how important those seven hours of rest time are.

They contribute to better cognitive performance, alertness, physical performance, and better immune response. Still, most people have trouble getting those seven to nine hours of nighttime rest.

Consequences, other than MS episodes, may include increased blood pressure, high sugar levels, cognitive impairment, memory, and physical performance issues. Long-term side effects may include obesity and diabetes.

It’s NOT GOOD. 

Microsleep periods become more frequent with the increase of cumulative sleep debt. The more sleep-deprived you are, the greater the chance an MS episode will occur.

However, sleep deprivation isn’t the only cause of MS.

Who’s at risk of microsleep

Individuals who are performing a monotonous task for a long period, such as driving or repetitive work, are at risk of microsleep more than other people. Sleep disorders also tend to make microsleep more likely as well. 

Individuals with sleep disorders, which cause sleeplessness, are also at risk.

Disorders like insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea can result in sleep deprivation, and in turn, cause microsleep episodes. For that very reason, MS episodes may help diagnose sleep disorders, which individuals may not be aware of.

People with obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder, may get enough hours of sleep. Still, due to apnea, they may experience a less quality restful sleep, which can cause chronic sleep deprivation.

The main dangers of Microsleep

Usually, MS episodes are completely harmless if you’re at home, lying on your couch and trying to stay awake for a TV program. But there are some dangers. 

In other situations, episodes of microsleep can be extremely dangerous and can lead to many accidents, or even fatal injuries. Experiencing an episode while driving can be a dangerous and unpleasant experience.

Drivers are susceptible since long-distance driving can be a pretty monotonous task.

This is especially true in the afternoon, as the body experiences a natural energy drop. It can also happen at night since nighttime is our natural time for rest.

Young drivers are even more at risk since young people require more sleep, in general. As a result, they are more affected by sleep loss.

Studies suggest that drivers suffering from OSA are 2 to 4 times more likely to have a car accident. MSs are also one of the symptoms of narcolepsy, though they shouldn’t be confused with sleep attacks.

Sleep attacks, like MS episodes, may happen spontaneously, but they usually last much longer.

Sometimes, MS episodes are side-effects of various prescription drugs, like dopamine-stimulation drugs in Parkinson’s Disease. It’s known that the use of these drugs causes sudden-onset sleep spells in roughly 50% of people with PD, while they were behind the wheel.

Some 45% of males and 22% of female drivers experienced microsleep while driving. It’s estimated that 20% of accidents on major roads are sleep-related. 16.5% of crashes have a fatal outcome.

Most concerning is that people who experience symptoms of MS continue to push through and drive instead of pulling over to sleep.

Night shift workers or sleep-deprived people operating machinery are also at risk. Sleep deprivation and MS episodes impact your decision making, alertness, and reflexes in a negative way, raising the chances of work-related accidents.

How to prevent microsleep

Knowing what causes MS episodes plays a vital role in preventing microsleep. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill for preventing or curing MS, at least not yet.

Depending on the cause, the episodes can be prevented or, at least, reduced in number.

MS episodes can occur at any time of the day, though they are most frequent in early morning and late at night. However, these episodes aren’t just limited to those hours, and they can happen anytime if you haven’t gotten enough rest.

Keep in mind that MS is difficult to identify because you doze off while your eyes are starting to close. Still, there are warning signs which may signal when you’re about to experience an episode of microsleep.

If you have a hard time keeping your eyes open, constantly blinking to stay awake, followed by excessive yawning, you’re experiencing those warning signs. In these moments, it’s often best to help yourself with a cup of coffee or any drink containing about 150mg of caffeine.

Keep in mind that caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in, and used over a period of time may cause your body to build up a resistance.

In most cases, MS episodes are a result of some form of sleep deprivation.

If you’ve accumulated some amount of short-term sleep debt, you need to come up with a working sleep schedule and adhere to it.

Healthy sleep hygiene plays a major role in eradicating sleep deprivation, which can, in turn, prevent the episodes, or greatly reduce them.

However, if your lack of rest comes as a consequence of a medical condition, consult your physician. In those cases, a strict sleeping schedule and good sleep hygiene are hard to maintain, so look for professional medical help.

What can you do to improve your sleep

At best, microsleep episodes will only impact your focus, causing you to miss your exit while driving, or not hear a vital piece of information.

At worst, it can be the cause of a car accident, or severely impact your performance, be it academics or professional. Still, if you feel like you might experience these episodes, there are tips and tricks to help you minimize the chances of having one.

For starters, you should always try and get a GOOD amount of sleep at night.

For adults, that is somewhere between 7 and 9 hours.

Getting a good night’s rest is crucial in preventing sleep deprivation, and in turn, MS episodes.

Also, consider making healthier lifestyle changes like improvements in your diet. Eat healthy foods that can energize you and aren’t heavy for the digestive tract. Avoid alcohol if you’re sleepy, as it can make you feel even more tired.

Taking a caffeinated drink can help as dose of 150mg should do the trick and remove any signs of sleepiness. However, it does take 20 – 30 minutes to kick in and only lasts for a couple of hours.

Chewing gums, especially ones with Vitamin B and C, keep your mouth and your mind moving. The addition of vitamins in these chewing gums can give you an energy boost.

When Driving

You should also avoid driving when you’re feeling less alert.

This includes nighttime or early mornings since your internal clock wants you to go to bed. If you’re going to drive, especially during long road trips, you should always get sufficient sleep.

Driving can be monotonous, so you should always drive with a travel companion. They can help you stay alert and awake through productive or fun conversation.

Conversation, upbeat music, or entertaining radio show can help your mind stay focused. Travel companions can also keep a watch for any signs of sleepiness and fatigue, and switch off driving duties with you.

If you’re driving without a travel companion, pull over for 20-minutes power naps whenever you need to. Park the vehicle somewhere safe, take the keys out of the ignition and take a nap.

When At Work

At work, engage in productive conversations with your coworkers, or respond to the pilling heap of unanswered emails. If you’re sitting, stretch at your chair, or get up and move around for a bit, taking trips to the water cooler, or around the office building.

Walk outside during breaks, and expose yourself to the sunlight. Being active will can wake up your body and fight sleepiness.

If you’re feeling tired or sleepy, avoid operating heavy or any other machinery because working with machinery while sleep-deprived can lead to accidents or injury.

At the class, actively participate by asking and answering questions. Quit fidgeting by spinning your pencil or a pen as this can also help you stay awake.

Conclusion

Though not clinically significant, many accidents and catastrophes have resulted from MS episodes, especially if a person was driving or operating some type of equipment.

The best way to deal with the MS episodes is to get a good, healthy amount of sleep.

Good, effective sleep schedule and good sleep hygiene are crucial in eliminating sleeplessness and reducing the chances of experiencing episodes of microsleep.

The only way to reduce the need for rest, is to sleep.

If your sleeplessness is the result of a medical condition, get medical attention. The same goes if you’re experiencing these bursts of sleep without any apparent reason, as they may help in diagnosing different sleep disorders.

In conclusion, microsleep isn’t dangerous by itself. These short, unintentional episodes are the body’s natural response to sleep deprivation and sleep debt.

The good news? 

Improve and increase your sleep quality at night, and you’ll stop having micro sleep periods.

It’s controllable.

Experiencing these episodes while winding down in the comfort of your home by watching television isn’t problematic. However, experiencing this when driving, or operating equipment and machinery is extremely dangerous and can result in accidents and fatal injuries.

If you’re feeling sleepy, and you wish to maintain alertness, consider the tips and tricks described in this article. Also, several over-the-counter stimulants can help you decrease MS frequency, like coffee.

How to sleep better

We wrote a lot of articles about sleeping better by the way.

Like we said, by sleeping better, you’ll reduce the risk of experiencing micro sleep. Here are some useful articles about sleeping better: