Healthy Living

Can You Really Catch Up On Sleep?

Experts demystify whether you should expect to ever feel rested again.

It’s America’s favorite weekend activity: catching up on sleep. But when you sleep in, are you really making up for lost sleep?

“That’s a hard one to get a lot of consensus on in the sleep community,” says sleep medicine physician W. Christopher Winter, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia. “The answer is probably that you can catch up on sleep, but only to an extent. If you can get some extra sleep a few days after a particularly short night, it will probably help you function better and feel more rested. But if you’ve been sleep deprived for months or years, that sleep is probably long gone.”

For example, in one study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine, researchers found that in people who are chronically sleep deprived, sleeping for 10 hours during one night can improve their alertness and ability to perform tasks the next day. However, they also found that it doesn’t counteract the health effects of sleep deprivation over the long term.

After all, five short nights add up quickly to a sleep deficit of 20-plus hours, but no one is sleeping that many extra hours over the weekend. (If they are, larger health issues are likely to blame.) Even when they do sleep in, many adults can’t sleep more than nine or 10 hours on the weekends. That’s because, as you age, your body’s “let’s stay asleep” system gets more lax so that it becomes progressively more difficult to sleep late into the day like you did during your teenage years, says Kristen Knutson, a biomedical anthropologist at the University of Chicago specializing in the relationship between sleep and health. Plus, who has the time to sleep for 48 hours straight over the weekend?

But even if sleeping in every now and then can keep you from falling asleep in your giant cup of coffee during the week, it might not always be worth it. When your sleep schedule varies from night to night – like when you skimp on sleep during the week and hibernate on weekends – you increase your risk of obesity as well as chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, she says. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has even classified shift work that throws off sleep schedules as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning it most likely causes cancer in people.

What’s more, oversleeping on the weekends can set you up for future sleep problems. After all, if you wake up at noon on Sunday, it’s going to be hard to go back to bed at 10 p.m. so you can be bright eyed when your alarm goes off at 6 the next morning. “This is how most cases of insomnia get started,” Winter says.

So how are you supposed to make up for lost sleep without messing up your health – and winding up even more tired? Follow these expert-approved tips:

Split the difference. When trying to catch up on sleep, it’s important to minimize any differences between your weeknight and weekend sleep schedules, Knutson says. So, when you are vying for a couple hours of extra sleep, don’t just wake up two hours later than usual. Try going to bed one hour earlier and sleeping one hour later. It’ll help keep you from throwing off your sleep schedule and not being able to sleep the next night, she says.

Take more naps. Apart from perking you up, short naps can reverse the negative effects of a poor night’s sleep on your body’s neuroendocrine and immune systems, according to 2015 research published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Knutson recommends capping all naps at 15 to 20 minutes. If you sleep longer, you’re likely to wake up even more tired than when you hunkered down for your nap, she says.

Get serious about catching up. When most people sleep in, they do it with the blinds open, hitting snooze over and over again. And, likewise, when they nap, they do it on the couch with football games playing in the background. That’s not going to equate to the quality sleep you need, Winter says. When trying to score some extra shut-eye, make sure your environment is conducive to deep sleep. Turn out all of the lights, shut the blinds, turn off the TV and opt for the bed over the couch, he says.

Can You Really Catch Up On Sleep? was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.

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