The list of things that mess with your sleep is long: being on your smartphone right before you turn off the lights, having a nightcap, mentally running through every embarrassing thing you’ve ever done as you lie in bed, etc. Now there’s a new “don’t” to add to that list: If you didn’t sleep well last night, do not go to bed early tonight.
In a study presented at SLEEP 2016, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, people who turned in early, slept in later or took naps to compensate for a night (or nights) of tossing and turning were more likely to go from acute insomnia to chronic insomnia instead of back to normal, healthy sleep. (Acute insomnia is defined as three or more instances per week of taking 30-plus minutes to fall asleep or being awake for 30-plus minutes during the night for at least two weeks; chronic insomnia has the same criteria, lasting for three months or more.)
The researchers recruited 500 “good” sleepers (for instance, taking 15 minutes or less to fall asleep, on average) and followed them for 12 months, asking subjects to fill out daily diaries and frequent questionnaires about their sleep. By the end of the year, 20 percent of the subjects developed acute insomnia at some point, and of those, 48 percent continued to deal with intermittent insomnia, 7 percent developed chronic insomnia, and 45 percent returned to good sleep. What was the key difference between who recovered and who got worse? Trying to make up for lost sleep.
The problem with sleep extension is that it feels good in the short term but messes with your body’s sleep system, says Michael Perlis, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Meaning, if you’ve only been getting six hours a night recently due to stress but you go to bed two hours earlier in hopes of catching up, you’re very likely to still sleep for six hours and spend those other two hours awake, which just fuels your insomnia.
Instead, the best approach is to “do nothing. Don’t sleep in, don’t nap, and don’t go to bed early,” says Perlis. “Acute insomnia will fix itself in three to five days if you do nothing. If you sleep extend, you may have insomnia for life.” Doing nothing looks like this: If you normally sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but it took an hour to nod off or you were awake from 1 to 2 a.m. last night, you should still get up at 6 a.m. and keep your 10-o’clock bedtime the following night. Keep that same schedule until you’re sleeping like your old self again.
We get that in this instance, “doing nothing” is actually really hard, so if you can’t help hitting snooze or sneaking in an afternoon nap, here’s how you fix it: If you slept in or catnapped for an hour the day after sleeping badly, instead of going to bed at 10 p.m., go to bed at 11 p.m. or, ideally, 11:15 or 11:30 p.m. (”You’ve borrowed from your awake time by sleep extending, and loans are never made without interest,” says Perlis), then get up at 6 o’clock the next morning.