Sleep Responsibly: Don't Microsleep and Drive
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Have you ever gone to class after pulling an all-nighter only to slump in your chair, jolting awake every time your head nods? This in and out of consciousness is called microsleeping.
It’s very common to experience some form of microsleep throughout your life. But what exactly is microsleep, and what dangers does it present? In this article, we’ll talk about what causes it, what risks it poses, and how to treat or prevent it.
What is Microsleep?
Microsleep is a short yet deep sleeping period that lasts for less than 15 seconds. During this period, you become unconscious and unable to respond to low-level noise. Your brain also flips between an awake and asleep state, which may cause you to experience consecutive episodes of microsleep.
Microsleep can happen anywhere at any time of the day. Most of the time, you won’t even realize that you’ve fallen asleep. Depending on what you’re doing, this means it can be dangerous for you and those around you.
For example, if you experience microsleep while you’re driving, you could be involved in a serious accident. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, it’s estimated that around 16.5 percent of fatal car accidents in the U.S. are due to microsleep.
Here are some examples of occupations where microsleep can cause serious risk:
- Locomotive drivers (trains, boats, ships, etc.)
- Factory workers
- Surgeons and surgical specialists
- Air traffic controllers
- Construction workers
Though microsleep can strike at any time, there are tell-tale symptoms you can spot before an episode occurs. It can vary from person to person, so it’s important to take caution when you experience the following:
- Slow or constant blinking
- Lapses in short-term memory
- Sudden body jerks
- Difficulty keeping eyes open
- Excessive yawning
- Zoning out
Who is at Risk of Microsleeping?
Microsleep can happen to anyone, but the biggest contributing factor is sleep deprivation. You don’t even need a track record of sleep deprivation to experience microsleep. Just one night of interrupted sleep is enough to increase your risk.
Certain populations are at higher risk of sleep deprivation and, therefore, may be more prone to microsleep. Here are some examples:
- New, sleep-deprived parents
- Drivers, especially long-haul drivers
- College students who regularly pull all-nighters
- Shift workers, like call center agents and security personnel
Aside from sleep deprivation, microsleeping can also be exacerbated by certain sleep disorders, ailments, and activities such as:
- Sleep apnea
- Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) or shifting work schedules
- Drinking alcohol
- Taking medications that cause sleepiness
How to Prevent Microsleeping
There’s no universal cure for microsleep, as it’s not considered a sleep disorder. However, there are things you can do to lessen your chance of having microsleep episodes, such as:
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep. According to sleep specialists, this is the recommended number of hours of sleep for the average adult. This is also the most effective preventive method against microsleep and can lead to better overall sleep efficiency.
- Follow a regular sleeping schedule. Developing a sleep habit can help your body adjust to when you need to work and when you need to sleep. Use alarms to train your mind and body to sleep and wake up at certain times.
- Take a power nap. To address microsleep, you may need to power nap, especially before you start working or when you’re starting to doze off. Taking some time off work and napping for 20-30 minutes can give you the energy and cognitive boost needed.
- Take a break and find something else to do. This can be especially helpful when you’re doing a monotonous and repetitive task. If possible, take breaks regularly and walk around to stimulate your brain.
- Listen to stimulating music or interesting podcasts. This will help your mind keep active and alert, especially during long, quiet drives. Don’t listen to relaxing music as it can make you feel drowsy.
- Drink coffee or energy drinks in moderation. Caffeine is not a long-term solution to sleep deprivation, but it may help in a pinch. When needed, try getting a moderate amount of caffeine at least an hour to 30 minutes before you need to perform.
- Avoid taking substances or medications that will make you drowsy. Alcohol and other sensory-impairing substances can act as a sedative, making you more likely to feel sleepy.
- Bring a passenger or companion with you. Small talk or conversation can keep you awake and engaged with the task at hand.
Microsleeping is a common but dangerous issue that can happen due to sleep deprivation and other factors. Because it can happen at any time and in any place, it’s important to recognize its causes, symptoms, and methods of prevention for your safety, as well as those around you.
Frequent microsleep episodes may be an indicator of an underlying sleep disorder. If you’re experiencing microsleep and you feel that it’s starting to affect your day-to-day life, make sure to consult a doctor or sleep specialist to get the proper treatment and diagnosis.
Practicing better sleep hygiene and developing healthier lifestyle habits can also help you treat or prevent episodes of microsleep.
Hirshkowitz M, et al. (2015). The National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary.
Liang Y, et al. (2019). Prediction of drowsiness events in night shift workers during morning driving. Accident; Analysis and Prevention.
Poudel G, et al. (2018). Temporal evolution of neural activity and connectivity during microsleeps when rested and following sleep restriction. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053811918302416?fr=RR-2&ref=pdf_download&rr=74dab19b8fb16e4b
Shorucak J, et al. (2020). Automatic detection of microsleep episodes with feature-based machine learning.
What You Should Know About Microsleep. (2021). https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-you-should-know-about-microsleep/
Yong Z. et al. (2020). Microsleep is associated with brain activity patterns unperturbed by auditory inputs.
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