The idea of “paying off sleep debt” that accumulates throughout the work week has thus far been widely dismissed as wishful thinking. The general consensus is that you either get enough sleep each night or you don’t – and cramming in a few extra hours on your days off, although it might feel good, can’t possibly fix the physiological damage caused by sleep deprivation.
But here’s some great news for all of us who’ve been hoping that the sleep debt we pile on could somehow be paid off on those blissful weekend mornings. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests that we may be able to “catch up on sleep” after all, by sleeping in on our days off.
It’s not that straightforward, however.
A different take on sleep deprivation research
For this study, researchers gathered the data of more than 38,000 adults from Sweden, which was collected in a medical survey in 1997. The survey included two questions that were keys to this research: one about sleep duration during workdays/weeknights, and the other concerning sleep duration on days off.
And that’s exactly what makes this study stand out from the previous research concerning sleep deprivation and mortality risk. Previous studies focused on questions about the “usual” sleep duration of participants, while this one focuses specifically on the link between the “usual” sleep duration and the occurrence of sleeping in.
Using Sweden’s national death register, the research team followed up on the cohort for 13 years, controlling for the factors that can contribute to health or mortality risk (gender, smoking, BMI, etc.)
They found that those who slept 5 hours or less per night had a 65% higher risk of death during the study period than those who slept 6-7 hours nightly. However, the participants with short weekday sleep who habitually slept in on weekends didn’t appear to have an increased mortality risk.
Now, these findings clearly lead to the assumption that we could compensate for lost sleep in some way, but it’s far from definitive proof. A weekend sleep-in may be able to mitigate the effects of weeklong exhaustion, but there’s certainly a limit, as many physiological changes induced by cumulative sleep debt can be long-term.
Perhaps a more important factor than the number of extra hours of sleep is consistency and the possibility of establishing well-timed cycles of regular sleep and sleeping in.
In the end, no matter how we put it, our search for recurring sleep compensation reflects a deeper issue.
Night owls in a morning lark’s world
Another study published in 2018 concludes that “night owls” have a 10% higher mortality risk than “larks,” AKA “morning people.” Drawing from data of nearly half a million participants, this study also stands out from the rest in the field as it is the first to focus on mortality risk.
The researchers took into account the expected health problems identified in night owls in previous studies (such as cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysfunction) and still found the increased mortality risk.
The findings, although new, aren’t very shocking, considering the adjustment evening types make to adapt to the socially imposed timing of work and all other activities.
Kristen Knutson, the co-lead author of the study, puts it best, saying in a statement: “Night owls trying to live in a morning lark world may have health consequences for their bodies. It could be that people who are up late have an internal biological clock that doesn’t match their external environment.”
The study further shows higher rates of diabetes, psychological disorders, and neurological disorders among people who stay up late. The researchers emphasize that this is a public health issue that we need to pay attention to, both in regards to making work schedules more flexible and researching the possibility of shifting owls’ body clocks.
Becoming a lark
The issue with relying on weekends to make up for lost sleep, despite the reported benefits, is that come Monday, things are bound to get really tough when that alarm rings. The study on weekend sleep examined mortality rates – not the optimal hours of extra sleep, or the difficulty of getting your circadian rhythm back on track. In short, it might sound like great news at first, but if you’re eager to overdo it with sleeping in every weekend, you’ll still be stuck in a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
This is difficult to embrace for night owls, myself included. But in the end, shifting your body clock to become more of a morning person is a better solution for so many reasons. And it’s easier than it sounds at first. With the rising popularity of natural sleeping aids such as CBD oil and techniques such as meditation, millions of people are finding a healthy alternative to dangerous sleep meds to help them start going to bed earlier, get quality sleep, and establish a consistent rhythm.
Don’t worry, you’re not doomed. Committing to going to bed early and keeping a consistent sleeping schedule is just the formation of a habit. It’s shifting your behavior which, with time, will adjust your internal body clock.
And remember: it’s easy to slip into old habits and binge-sleep on weekends, and then count sheep on Sunday night. Forming any good habit takes effort and discipline, which means you might have to go back to square one a few times before you get the hang of it.