Alaska Sleep Education Center

Feeling drowsy? Learn the dangers of microsleep

Posted by Julia Higginson on Oct 24, 2017 7:47:10 PM

The dangers of drowsy driving.

Have you ever had an experience where you were driving and you can’t remember how you got where you where? Or you were listening to conversation and can’t remember a thing the person just said? Odds are you were experiencing an episode of microsleep.

Microsleep is a temporary episode of sleep that occurs for a fraction of a second up to 30 seconds. When you are fatigued, your brain often tries to compensate by shutting down for short periods of time. Microsleep generally happens without warning and you often don’t even know you have just nodded off.

Involuntary sleep, even if just for a few seconds, can prove to be dangerous and even fatal. The key to keeping safe is to understand what causes microsleep and how to prevent it.


Microsleep results from not getting enough sleep. Falling asleep momentarily is often a combination of feeling sleepy while doing repetitive, monotonous tasks like driving or listening to a conversation.

When you are tired, certain parts of your brain actually begin to fall asleep even though you are technically awake. Our bodies are designed to function on adequate and quality sleep.

Your brain will go into defense mood when you fail to get the sleep you need. During microsleep, your state of awareness is temporarily disabled until your body notices what is happening and wakes us up again.

You might not even be aware you are experiencing mircrosleep. During microsleep, certain parts of your brain  shut down, or sleep. So even though you think you are awake your brain is not functioning at its full capacity.

Your chance of microsleep increases when you fail to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Microsleep can also happen when the quality of your sleep is poor.

The time of day can also increase the likelihood of microsleep. Your body will experience a natural dip in energy and alertness just before dawn and mid-afternoon. Fatigue can quickly overcome you if you already are failing to get enough sleep at night.

Microsleep often catches you off guard, even when your eyes are still open. This makes identifying microsleep even more difficult. The signs that you are having or have had a microsleep episode are:

  • A blank stare
  • Your head dropping and jerking back up again
  • Slow, frequent blinking
  • A sudden jerk of the body
  • Not able to recall what happened in the last minute

Dangers of Microsleep

Falling asleep at workMicrosleep often gives way into a full nap, which usually isn’t a problem if you are in the comfort of your own home and are in a safe environment for sleep. There can be disastrous consequences if you drop off during a task that requires your full attention, like when you are driving or operating heavy machinery.

Let’s look at a bit of math for a second to understand just how dangerous microsleep can be. If you were traveling at 70 mph and microslept for just six seconds, you would travel roughly 656 feet. That’s almost the length of two football fields!

In that distance, you would have had the space to change lanes, cross over to the other side of the road, or pass through a red light or a stop sign. Microsleep during driving accounts for more than 72,000 accidents per year, many of which end tragically.

The time when you nod off during microsleep isn’t the only dangerous part of the situation. The sleep deprivation leading up to the microsleep also affect your reaction time, judgment, and your decision-making skills. Lack of sleep can cause you to feel stressed and impatient, which leads to recklessness and a drop in your performance.

Preventing microsleep

The dangers associated with microsleep and sleep depreivation should not be taken lightly. The best way to prevent microsleep is to get adequate and quality sleep each night.

The first step to getting better sleep is to become aware of how sleep deprived you really are. The common signs of sleep deprivation are:

  • Yawning
  • Moodiness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Difficulty learning new concepts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to concentrate or a "fuzzy" head
  • Lack of motivation
  • Clumsiness
  • Increased appetite and carb cravings

The temptation with the effects of sleep deprivation is to try and mask the symptoms. Instead, you should try and find the cause of why you aren’t sleeping well at night.

One of the biggest hurdles to sleep is a sleep disorders. Sleep apnea and insominia can cause you to experience poor sleep despite your best efforts. Treatment is available to help you overcome the effects of sleepless nights caused by sleep disorders.

Other causes of sleep deprivation are night shifts, work schedules, social life, and family life. A lot of the time sleep becomes a second thought as we try to cram in more tasks than there is time for during the day.

Certain medications can also cause drowsiness as a side effect. Talk to your doctor about overcoming medication drowsiness if this is the cause of your microsleep.

Try to avoid any task that requires your constant attention if you feel sleep deprived. Take a break, if possible, and let yourself take a nap of at least 20 minutes long. A short power nap has the ability to give your brain the boost it needs to avoid microsleep.

Just be careful you don’t nap for more than 30 minutes as that puts you into a deep stage of sleep, which is harder to wake up from. Long naps can leave you feeling even more groggy than you did before. If you feel you need a longer nap, aim for around 90 minutes so you can complete a full cycle of deep sleep into light sleep.

Caffeine can be used in a pinch to give you an extra boost to help you avoid nodding off. It takes around 30 minutes for you to feel the effects of caffeine so you still are in danger of microsleep while you wait. Be cautious as long-term use of caffeine to overcome the effects of sleep can lead to a cycle of harming your sleep at night.

The best way to prevent microsleep? A good night’s sleep is hands down the best cure. Don’t let sleep deprivation put you and the people around you in harms way. If you suspect you are experiencing microsleep, let our experts at Alaska Sleep Clinic help you find the cause of your sleep deprivation so you can get the sleep you need.

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