Why Do We Sleep with Our Eyes Closed?
Sleeping with closed eyes is the normal way to rest, but did you ever wonder why we are naturally inclined to sleep this way? The first reason is that closing our eyes allows us to block out light. Not only can sunlight or artificial light be distracting, but it also stimulates our brain, encouraging us to be awake instead of asleep.
The second important reason for keeping the eyes closed at night is lubrication and protection. The eyelids serve as a protective shield against any harmful debris that could irritate or damage the eyes, and they ensure the eyes do not become dried out.
Can Humans Sleep With Their Eyes Open?
Nocturnal lagophthalmos is the formal term for not being able to keep the eyes closed while asleep. Many people might not be aware they do this and only find out once someone else mentions it. According to Cleveland Clinic, nocturnal lagophthalmos usually results from impaired facial nerves or muscles, which can be due to various conditions.
When a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or becomes blocked, this can cut off the blood supply to the brain, depriving it of essential nutrients and oxygen. As a result, the person can develop a stroke.
Strokes can result in serious health complications that include nerve cell damage. There are three primary types of strokes, Hemorrhagic and Ischemic. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is similar to a stroke but does not kill brain cells.
Bell’s palsy is when someone experiences a sudden episode of muscle weakness or paralysis in the face. These episodes can last for up to 48 hours and are caused by damage to the seventh cranial nerve. The highest risk groups for Bell’s palsy are pregnant women and individuals with diabetes, the flu, a cold, or an upper respiratory condition.
A blepharoplasty – or eyelid surgery – could make it challenging for the eyes to stay closed at night. In many cases, this is a cosmetic procedure to fix loose, saggy skin above or below the eyes.
While some choose this procedure to appear more youthful, others may need it because the saggy skin could impair vision. Unfortunately, trouble closing the eyelids is one of the risks.
Neuromuscular disorders are reported to affect as many as 1.5 million Americans each year. A nerve disease can impair a person’s ability to move, including shutting the eyelids.
Head or Facial Trauma or Injury
A significant injury to the head or face could also cause nocturnal lagophthalmos. To reduce the risk of head trauma, wear protective gear such as helmets when riding a bike or playing football. You should also always practice essential safety measures while driving, such as wearing your seatbelt, not texting behind the wheel, and never operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid releases an excess of hormones into the body. In addition to muscle weakness, a person with hyperthyroidism can experience a rapid heart rate, increased appetite, shakiness, weight loss, diarrhea, hair loss, and more.
Using Alcohol or Sleeping Pills
Consuming alcohol or sleeping pills may also lead to difficulty closing the eyes. In this case, cutting down on your alcohol intake could help. If you take prescription sleep medication and experience nocturnal lagophthalmos, you should consult your doctor to find a proper solution.
Learn More: Alcohol and Sleep
Parasomnias are abnormal nighttime behaviors such as sleepwalking or talking in your sleep. According to Cleveland Clinic, a person experiencing parasomnia may have their eyes open. However, the eyes will usually only stay open while the parasomnia is happening instead of all night.
How to Sleep with Your Eyes Open
Falling asleep with your eyes wide or half-open may be beneficial for those days when you need a brief nap but want to be inconspicuous. If you’re intrigued and want to test this out, try the following technique to help train yourself to sleep with your eyes open.
Let Yourself Relax
Keep your eyes open but relax every other muscle in your body. Begin with your feet and toes, and slowly work your way up to your head and neck.
Focus on your breath. Take deep and measured breaths in and out of your nose. Give at least one-second intervals to get the full effect.
Focus on One Spot
Fix your gaze on a single spot in the room or the distance if you’re outdoors. Make sure the spot remains still so you can focus your stare. Avoid choosing something bright because that could affect your ability to concentrate.
Let Your Thoughts Wander
The overall goal is to clear your mind. So, first, allow yourself to daydream about something pleasant, like an upcoming or past vacation. Then, gradually begin to think of nothing, and eventually, you may fall asleep without anyone knowing!
Napping without Being Noticed
If you don’t have time to master the art of sleeping without closing your eyes, you could try to take a regular nap in public and avoid detection.
First, find a discreet place to nap, such as an office, car, closet, or bathroom. If you can’t escape to a private area, sit in the back of a populated room.
You can wear sunglasses to disguise closed lids. They also have the benefit of creating darkness, which can help facilitate sleep.
Avoid slouching, and sit up straight, preferably at a table or desk if one is available. Rest your elbow on the surface and bend it 90 degrees so that your hand props up your chin. You’ll look active and attentive.
Need help? Check out our complete guide on how to sleep anywhere!
Meditating with Your Eyes Open
Common practice is to meditate with closed eyes, but meditating with the eyes open could eventually help you learn to fall asleep that way as well.
Start in a dark, quiet room. Find a comfortable, seated position in either a chair on the floor. However, avoid lying down.
Focus on two objects at once. With your left eye, look at something on the left side of the room, and then use your right one to look at something on the right side.
Next, concentrate on deep and even breaths. Once you feel comfortable with open-eye meditation at home, try it out in public.
Practice Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is when you are fully aware that you’re in a dream. There’s no surefire way to plan a lucid dream, but following these steps may increase your chance of having one.
Plant the seed. As it turns out, just reading about lucid dreaming could encourage one to happen. So, before bed, read a few pages from a book that discusses the topic.
Make sure you get enough sleep. Lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep. The body needs plenty of rest to enter this state.
Keep a dream journal. As soon as you wake up, write down everything you remember about your dreams. Have the journal next to your bed to write in it immediately upon waking.
Set an intention by telling yourself that you want to have a lucid dream. You can also try a lucid dreaming app that will alert you with a ding or buzz when you’re entering a dream state. Over time, your subconscious mind will begin to associate that sound with dreaming.
Possible Side Effects
Even though a catnap with the eyes open may help you feel recharged, negative side effects could happen. Therefore, we do not recommend sleeping this way regularly.
The problem with sleeping this way is that it prevents the eyelids from covering and lubricating the eyes. As a result, experts with Cleveland Clinic warn that you could experience dryness, irritation, redness, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is sleeping with your eyes wide open safe?
As mentioned above, sleeping the eyes open could lead to various side effects that include eye dryness and irritation. If you are prone to dry eyes, sleeping this way could worsen your condition, so it would be best to avoid it.
In some cases, though, people involuntarily rest overnight with their eyes open, which can also lead to eye issues. If that’s the case, you should speak to your physician, who may be able to diagnose and help treat the cause of your nocturnal lagophthalmos.
Can you achieve a deep sleep while doing it?
Though you may be able to fall asleep with your eyes open, achieving a deep sleep is unlikely since you are more vulnerable to distractions. Furthermore, researchers emphasize that nocturnal lagophthalmos is associated with poor sleep. Therefore, regularly resting this way is likely detrimental to your overall health.
How do you treat nocturnal lagophthalmos?
For those who cannot actively control sleeping with their eyelids open, there are treatments you can try out as recommend by Cleveland Clinic. However, you should consult with a doctor before attempting any of these on your own.
The first method is to use eyelid tape. To do this, use a small piece of first-aid tape to seal your eyelids shut at night.
The next form of treatment is to use eyelid weights. The weights are very tiny, and you can tape them to your eyelids for overnight use. The added weight could help make it easier to keep the eyes closed.
Patients can opt for an oil gland treatment, which can improve the function of natural oil glands in the eyes. Another option is to apply gel drops prescribed by a doctor. The gel can protect the eye’s surface while also helping to keep the eyelids closed.
Sources and References:
-  “Did You Know That 20% of People Sleep With Their Eyes Open?”, Offen Eye Associates, May 19, 2020
-  “Why Do Some People Sleep With Their Eyes Open?”, Cleveland Clinic, June 10, 2021
-  “Stroke: Understanding Stroke”, Cleveland Clinic, July 11, 2018
-  “Bell’s Palsy”, Johns Hopkins Medicine
-  “Blepharoplasty”, Mayo Clinic, June 19, 2020
-  “Neuromuscular Center”, Cleveland Clinic
-  “Hyperthyroidism”, Cleveland Clinic, April 19, 2020
-  Robert L. Latkany, Barbara Lock, Mark Speaker, “Nocturnal lagophthalmos: an overview and classification”, National Library of Medicine, 2006
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.