Catching up on your sleep this weekend? It doesn’t work, researchers find
Americans may put off to the weekend catching up on sports scores, store sales, the latest news and more. But there’s a health essential that new research suggests cannot be put off for the weekend: a good night’s sleep.
The study, conducted at the University of Colorado and published in the science journal “Current Biology,” focused on a small group: three dozen healthy adults, split into three groups, with one allowed to sleep nine hours nightly, another getting just five hours of slumber, and a third with a staggered schedule. The last group, for five days, got five hours of sleep, followed by two days in which they could snooze for as long as they wished. They had to return, though, to the five-day cycle of five-hour slumbers.
Researchers followed their subjects for nine-day spans. The results will be un-welcome for proponents of weekend catch-up sleep, because it didn’t help in the ways that many of us would wish. As the Washington Post reported, those “who were limited to five hours of sleep on weekdays gained nearly three pounds over two weeks and experienced metabolic disruption that would increase their risk for diabetes over the long term. While weekend recovery sleep had some benefits after a single week of insufficient sleep, those gains were wiped out when people plunged right back into their same sleep-deprived schedule the next Monday.”
Kenneth Wright, director of the sleep and chronobiology laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who oversaw the work, told the Washington Post:
“If there are benefits of catch-up sleep, they’re gone when you go back to your routine. It’s very short-lived. These health effects are long-term. It’s kind of like smoking once was — people would smoke and wouldn’t see an immediate effect on their health, but people will say now that smoking is not a healthy lifestyle choice. I think sleep is in the early phase of where smoking used to be.”
Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said the study reinforces that people need to stop thinking of sleep as a balance sheet, with data spread across time and capable of balancing out. Instead, they should see sleep as they have learned to be more discerning about diet and exercise: You can’t control weight and be healthy by eating endless pizza and guzzling beer four days a week, then limiting yourself to salad and water for two days, while also couch surfing for six days, then playing four hours of touch football on a Saturday.
Sleep has gained greater attention as essential to Americans’ health, with “routine … deprivation [tied to] weight gain and increased other health risks, including diabetes,” as the Washington Post reported. Brain researchers also have deemed the nation to be in a “public health crisis” for its poor and insufficient sleep. As the newspaper reported in a separate story:
The growing consensus is that casual disregard for sleep is wrongheaded — even downright dangerous. Preschoolers who skip naps are worse at a memory game than those who snooze, even after the children ‘catch up’ on sleep the next night. An alarming new line of research suggests poor sleep may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, as even a single night of sleep deprivation boosts brain levels of the proteins that form toxic clumps in Alzheimer’s patients. All-nighters push anxiety to clinical levels, and even modest sleep reductions are linked to increased feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Researchers at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corp. have tried to assess the economic damage caused by global sleep deficits finding that:
The U.S. sustains by far the highest economic losses (up to $411 billion a year, which is 2.28 per cent of its GDP) due to the size of its economy, followed by Japan (up to $138 billion a year, which is 2.92 per cent of its GDP). …Small changes to sleep duration could have a big impact on the economy. For example, if individuals that slept under six hours started sleeping six to seven hours then this could add $226.4 billion to the U.S. economy. This could add $75.7 billion to the Japanese economy, $34.1 billion to the German economy, $29.9 billion to the UK economy and $12 billion to the Canadian economy. Sleep deprivation is linked to lower productivity at work, which results in a significant amount of working days being lost each year. On an annual basis, the U.S. loses an equivalent of around 1.2 million working days due to insufficient sleep.
RAND also found that sleep deprivation is linked to higher mortality risk and shortened sleep puts people at heightened risk for “obesity, excessive alcohol and sugary drink consumption, smoking, lack of physical activity, mental health problems, stress at work, shift work/irregular working hours, financial concerns, and long commuting.”
Sleep deprivation’s harms can be pronounced for adolescents, with their developing bodies and minds, RAND and other researchers have found. This has led some districts to delay the start time for high schools, with studies finding improvements in student performance (test scores and attendance).
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and, experience has shown that an important way to avoid problems with doctors and hospitals is to stay away from them by being as healthy as possible. Restful sleep is a key to healthful living, along with balanced eating and regular exercise, moderate alcohol intake, and no smoking.
For seniors, AARP — one of the nation’s largest advocacy groups for Americans older than 50, has posted sleep-improvement suggestions. These include exercise, but not too close to dozing time, and a regular, reasonable bed time. The group also suggests controlled eating and drinking close to the time you plan to sleep to avoid trying to doze on a full stomach or getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
As for younger sleepers, the experts quoted on the catch-up study had blunt reminders about screen time before trying to get shut-eye: don’t. With Americans already hectic lives, making sleep a priority is a must — and this means shutting off devices for a period before bed time and keeping them off through the night. So, no more late-night TV binge watching of action films or relentless email checking or all-night sneaks of video game playing or chatting. G’night!