Giz Explains: Why The Snooze Button Is Ruining Your Sleep

The snooze button is one of life's little luxuries, and it's easy to kid yourself into thinking that all you need is an extra 10, 20 -- hell, let's make it 30 -- minutes in the sack. But if you're lying there snoozing, you're lying to yourself.

At best, the snooze button is a psychological crutch. At worst, it's throwing off your brain chemistry for the day. And it's certainly not helping you get any real rest.

All about chemistry

Why do you want to fall asleep again after you've woken up? During the onset of sleep, your body releases serotonin into your bloodstream. A neurotransmitter commonly associated with well-being and happiness, it soothes the body and provides the contented feeling that overcomes you as you drift off to sleep. No wonder hitting snooze feels so good.

It's not pure bliss to have a body pumped full of serotonin, though. Through the course of the night, the chemicals dumped into your bloodstream change. The average adult needs 7-9 hours sleep a night, and while the exact amount varies person-to-person, your body knows when you've had enough, and pumps out dopamine to to suppress feelings of sleepiness and prepare you to wake.

As you hit the snooze button and return to sleep and re-start that dopamine drip, your body become a chemical cocktail shaker, as neurotransmitters rattle around providing conflicting influences. The snooze might release some feel-good chemicals, but ultimately it's pulling your body in different directions. That chemical confusion leaves you feeling disoriented, and makes it difficult to get going.

Short, but not so sweet

You probably know that sleep occurs in cycles -- a complex series of sleep-types with different neurological features and benefits. The two most important are rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep. The first lets your brain sift through the pervious day's activities, while the second provides the pure rest your body requires to function. The two come and go during the night, and the duration of each stage varies from person to person. But we all experience more deep sleep early in the night, and more REM sleep before natural awakening, triggered by shifting chemical balances.

During the hour or two before you wake, then, you primarily have REM sleep. You dream a lot during this period, and consolidate recent memories. Weirdly, this means that your body does most of the processing of the preceding day's events just before you wake naturally. The earlier you interrupt that process -- by, say, setting an alarm earlier than you need so you can snooze away for a half hour -- the less time you give yourself to process those experiences. Research shows that cutting into REM sleep like that can blunt your mental function during the day.

A fundamental belief about the snooze button is that the short snatches of sleep still help the body rest. Studies into sleep fragmentation suggest otherwise -- sleep which is interrupted every minute or every 10 can lead to "sleepiness-related daytime impairment" when compared to the equivalent amount of uninterrupted sleep. In other words, there is less value in snooze sleep and, if too much of your bed time is spent snoozing, you can expect impairments in your memory, reaction time, comprehension and attention.

What you can do

If you're waking up tired every morning, it's time to face facts: You're not getting enough sleep, and no amount of snoozing is going to fix it. The best advice is to keep going to bed earlier until you naturally wake up just before your alarm -- then you know you're getting all the sleep your body needs. But who are we kidding? However nice it would be live without an alarm clock, it probably isn't gonna happen. If the temptation of the snooze button is too much, you can at least try and minimise the negative effects it has.

So, take a cue from the sleep fragmentation experts, who suggest that the optimal nap length is around 20 minutes. Less than that, and you gain little benefit. But much more, and you risk falling into deep sleep, which will make the wake-up more difficult. Squeezing in a nap isn't ideal, but it's less disruptive than a 5- or 10-minute morning snooze time.

Of course, alarm clock technology continues to advance. On Android devices and iPhones, you can now set a specific interval of snooze. So if you really can't resist, dial it up to a luxurious 20 minutes. It just might minimize the damage.

Image by eflon under Creative Commons license

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    For whatever reason my body clock has been getting me up before 6 all this week. Even weirder is the fact that the last 2 mornings I've looked at my phone and it's been 5.44am.... what are the odds?
    First time that I can remember since I was in primary school (I'm 28) that I've been able to wake up before my alarm and get out of bed straight away without snoozing!

    I snooze 3 times of 10 minute intervals. Every. Damn. Morning.

      Me three!

        3 here too....over 30 years...after work naps to shake off the day....feeling good at 60

    "Go to bed earlier"... wish it was that simple. Going to bed early is one thing, actually getting to sleep is another battle entirely

      0.5-0.75mg of Xanax does me just nicely :)

        Xanax, Zopiclone, Zopiadem etc, are essentially GABA agonists. GABA is a receptor in the brain that triggers sleepiness (also primary affector site for Alcohol). These all disrupt the quality of REM sleep... a fact missed by most doctors who use it for the same purpose. Result is poor quality sleep (stage 2 vs stage 5), and you feel more knackered the next day for high level work like memory.

      This exactly. I get up at 4:30am every morning for work, but if I try to compliment that with a 8:30 or 9:00pm bed time, I end up lying there for somewhere between 2 to 4 hours before falling asleep!

        This is what happens to me, which is why I do my bedtime exercises,

    Agree with DENAz

    On another note, where is the function that extends the snooze on iphone? Or is it only with iOS 6? (as much as I'd love to change my snooze settings, I preferring holding on to Google Maps more...)

    Something that's probably been said as well (and might not be so popular here!) is changing diet - I've recently changed my diet and started counting calories to try and lose some weight, but the main thing I've done is cut out Coke and coffee - no caffiene, and as little sugar as I can (natural sugar in fruit etc is fine).

    Changing to a low GI breakfast is great too - I'm not getting the mid-afternoon tireds, and I'm able to get straight out of bed as soon as my alarm goes off. I'm actually sleeping through the night and feeling good, even though it was HELL the first few days weaning myself off my addictions.

    I've always wondered why 10 minutes for snooze.. I'd much rather it be 30 or 45 minutes.. I have some of my best dreams after I've hit the snooze button.. I'm not saying it's healthy.. I'm just saying..

    I usually hit the snooze button 6 times most mornings :) Yes.. 6. :)

    Have children. The lack of sleep problem won't be fixed, but you WILL be getting up in the morning. More than likely before the time set on your alarm clock.

    I've got a sunlight in my room - best alarm clock ever. It's great when I get to sleep early; torture the other 95% of the time. I use my alarm clock mainly to tell me when to get up - I'm already awake, and usually have been trying (and failing) to get back to sleep for two hours, when it goes off.

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