Bad News: You Actually Can't Catch Up On Sleep, Study Finds

mbg Contributor By Caroline Muggia
mbg Contributor
Caroline Muggia is a writer, environmental advocate, and registered yoga teacher (E-RYT) with a B.A. in Environmental Studies & Psychology from Middlebury College.
Bad News: You Actually Can't Catch Up On Sleep, Study Finds

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We've all had those days or weeks when our sleep suffers. You may tell yourself I'll catch up on the weekend, and while this makes us feel better about our lack of zzz's, a new study published in Current Biology reports you're not actually "catching up." Those hours you missed during the week, unfortunately, aren't banked for your Saturday and Sunday sleeping in.

The researchers from the University of Colorado–Boulder divided people into three groups. The first was allowed nine hours of sleep for nine nights. The second group had five hours per night for nine nights. The third group slept less than five hours a night for five days, and then were allowed to sleep for as much as they wanted for two nights before going back to the less than five hours a night.

They found that the groups who had their shut-eye limited had the poorest health outcomes and experienced increased caloric intake from late-night snacking, weight gain, and decreased insulin sensitivity. The sleepers in the third group had slightly better results during their "weekend" nights, but once they went back to their sleep-deprived "weekdays," the third group had even worse insulin sensitivity as compared to the second group. Low insulin sensitivity can lead to increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, and more body fat around the waist.

"It could be that the yo-yo-ing back and forth—changing the time we eat, changing our circadian clock and then going back to insufficient sleep—is uniquely disruptive," said Kenneth Wright, senior author on the study and director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab in a statement.

These findings suggest that staying on a regular schedule (experts recommend somewhere between six and eight hours) is optimal for your metabolic health, and trying to make it up on the weekends is not a beneficial strategy.

Sometimes lack of sleep is unavoidable, but this research suggests that consistently not getting enough sleep during the week and trying to catch up on the weekends may do more harm than good. You're better off keeping to a regular schedule.

Sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., explains it could come down to reframing how you think about sleep. Instead of thinking of it as a luxury, look at it as "the new vital sign," as poor sleep quality can affect our hormones, which results in high blood glucose levels, insulin resistance, weight gain, and increased cortisol levels.

Even if we're aware of the importance of sleep, insomnia and anxiety can sometimes get in the way of our sleep intentions. For those of you having a hard time falling asleep, Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., recommends trying a calming meditation, eating dinner three hours before bedtime to give your body time to digest, exercise (even if it's a walk) daily, and consider a natural sleep aid like melatonin.

It can take some time for your body to acclimate to a normal routine, especially if yours has been less than regular. Be gentle with yourself, and remember, it won't happen overnight.

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