Many people, regardless of age, struggle to get enough sleep during the week. When you're running around to keep up with work and family demands, it's difficult to stick to a regular bedtime. After dragging yourself through the workweek, the standard reaction is to try to get extra sleep on the weekends, but does this approach actually work? Can you catch up on sleep?
The Tired Truth
Sadly, the research suggests that you cannot catch up on sleep by packing in the hours on the weekend. A fairly conclusive study on this topic, published by Science Translational Medicine, was conducted in 2010. A team put nine healthy volunteers on a pretty demanding schedule for three weeks. During that time, the subjects were kept awake for 33 hours and allowed to sleep for 10 hours. The volunteers were also regularly tested to measure how the sleep deprivation affected their reaction times.
Interestingly, the subjects' reaction times were totally normal for the first few hours after they woke up. Their results steadily declined, however, as the day went on, and this decrease became more severe throughout the study's duration. These findings illustrate a few fascinating aspects of sleep deprivation.
"It is common for individuals to have relatively long sleep bouts on weekends or holidays but short sleep episodes on work or school days," the study explains. "Under such conditions, a chronically sleep-restricted individual may have a false sense of recovery from their prior sleep debt as a result of performing well for the first several hours of a usual waking day."
The fact that the negative effects increased as the study continued suggests you could trick yourself into thinking you are operating fine on limited sleep while collecting a potentially dangerous sleep debt.
The Impacts of Sleep Loss
The most obvious concern related to inadequate sleep is feeling tired, which could manifest as a decreased ability to focus or think during the day. However, there are many more effects of sleep deprivation that often go overlooked.
Sleep allows your body to repair itself after daily challenges. Denying it enough time to do what it needs to is risky: Inadequate sleep has been linked with obesity, diabetes, and even behavioral and psychological conditions, a relationship that Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience explores. The research even suggests that children who do not have regular bedtimes are statistically more likely to develop behavioral problems.
Solving the Sleep Conundrum
How can you make sure that you and your family are getting enough sleep, even with demanding schedules? First, determine how much sleep you need. This may take some trial and error to figure out. A common method involves taking a time period of about a week that you are not on a definite schedule, such as a vacation, and allowing your body to wake up naturally while going to bed at a decent hour. Keep track of when your body wakes up on its own; this will give you a better idea of how much sleep you need.
From there, the next step is maintenance. Stick to your regular sleep and waking times every night, even on the weekends. Try turning off all screens an hour before going to bed and gradually winding down each night. You may also find it useful to develop a nighttime ritual to help you relax. If you have trouble sleeping despite implementing these tips, it may be time to speak with your doctor.
Can you catch up on sleep? Ultimately, no. While it's tempting to burn the candle at both ends during the week and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday, it isn't a healthy cycle. The best way for you and your family to get back to regular, healthy sleep habits is to develop a consistent routine and stick to it.