The average person needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night to feel rested. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 people gets less than that on a regular basis. That means a large number of us are suffering from sleep debt.
Sleep debt is the difference between how much sleep you need and how much you get. When you regularly miss out on sleep, your sleep debt accumulates, and your ability to function becomes increasingly impaired. It’s harder to concentrate, your reaction times double, and you experience attention lapses at a rate five times higher than normal. Scarily, scientists have observed these effects even when the sleep-deprived individual doesn’t notice any changes in their performance.
A common approach to paying off sleep debt is to sleep in on the weekends. About 56% of Americans follow this practice, sleeping more on weekends than they do during the workweek — but does that really work? Sleeping in on weekends has its pros and cons, and scientists remain undecided as to whether it’s effective.
Benefits of Sleeping In on Weekends
Sleeping in on weekends is popular, and it does have a few benefits.
There’s no denying it: sleeping late on weekends feels good. Sleeping in on weekends begins for many of us in adolescence, and we keep the habit going strong into adulthood. After an exhausting week filled with work, social, and family responsibilities, sleeping in can feel like a reward.
Potential Sleep Debt Recovery
In general, sleep has a U-shaped relationship with certain health consequences, including increased mortality. Sleep too little, or too long, and your risk of dying early increases compared to those who get a healthy amount of sleep on a regular basis. Specifically, long sleepers have a 25% increased mortality risk, while short sleepers have a 65% higher risk.
However, recent research suggests that catching up on sleep over the weekend may have a protective effect against these negative long-term health consequences. One large-scale study of over 43,000 adults found that when short sleepers sleep in on the weekends, their mortality risk lowers to the same level as healthy sleepers. In other words, sleeping late on weekends may help compensate for some of the sleep debt you build up during the week.
Risks of Sleeping In on Weekends
Having an irregular sleep schedule may also affect other aspects of your health, including your metabolism and mood.
The Risks of Social Jetlag
You may naturally wake up later on the weekend than you do during weekdays, when you have to get to work or school by a specific time. The discrepancy between your body’s natural sleep schedule, or circadian rhythm, and your social schedule is known as social jetlag, and it’s measured by the midpoint of your sleep. For example, if you sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weeknights, the midpoint of your sleep is 3 a.m.. If you sleep from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekends, the midpoint shifts two hours later to 5 a.m.
Higher levels of social jetlag are associated with higher rates of obesity, inflammation, smoking, and alcohol use. The worse your social jetlag, the higher your likelihood of depression. For example, social jetlag of two hours, as opposed to one hour or less, is associated with higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), shorter weekday sleep, less physical activity, and a higher heart rate. These conditions increase your risk of developing diabetes and depression. However, even just one hour of social jetlag can have serious effects.
Metabolic Disruption and Weight Gain
When your sleep schedule varies from weekdays to weekends, it disrupts your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is best known for managing your sleep-wake cycle, but it also helps regulate a whole host of biological functions, from your energy and body temperature to your appetite and metabolism. Accordingly, people who get insufficient sleep on a regular basis are more likely to experience weight gain, metabolic dysfunction, and obesity-related diseases like diabetes and inflammation.
Short sleepers may gain weight because they can be more likely to engage in late-night snacking after dinner. When they get extra sleep on weekends, studies show that it reduces their late-night cravings on those nights. However, once these sleepers return to the sleep deprivation of a typical work week, their snacking resumes. Their insulin sensitivity also decreases, which is a warning sign for diabetes. Effectively, the benefits of the weekend sleep are canceled out by the following workweek.
An Incomplete Solution
Sleeping in is one approach to recoup sleep debt, but if you’ve been missing out on sleep for several days in a row, two days of sleeping in may not be enough. You may need several nights of good sleep to fully recover. Going to bed a little earlier on weekends can help you recoup sleep debt without sleeping in too late and throwing off your circadian rhythm. You sleep more deeply when you’re sleep-deprived, so just a little extra sleep can make a big difference.
Is Sleeping In on Weekends Right for You?
The best test is to pay attention to how you feel when you sleep in on weekends. Do you feel awake and alert, or do you feel groggy and grumpy? If you feel refreshed and restored after sleep, then what you’re doing is working. If you don’t feel your best, it may be worth adjusting your weekend sleep schedule to align with your weekday schedule.
That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to forego sleep on the weekends, though. A better approach to catch up on sleep debt may be with a nice, refreshing nap. Let yourself relax with a short 20- to 30-minute nap on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, ideally between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Keeping your naps short and sweet prevents you from feeling even groggier upon waking up. Instead, you’ll feel refreshed, and still be able to go to sleep on time that evening.
Also, consider what’s making you want to sleep in. Are you exhausted from the week, or are you staying up later on weekend nights? What else changes about your schedule on the weekends? For example, you may be drinking or eating more heavily, especially later at night. Heavy foods and alcohol can both interfere with the quality of your sleep, so you may want to sleep in later to make up for it.
How Can You Get More Sleep During the Week?
There is some evidence that sleeping in on weekends may recoup some sleep debt, but experts still recommend consistency as the best approach for healthy sleep. Sleeping in on two days of the week may be better than not getting enough sleep for seven days, but if you get more sleep all week long, that’s even better. Try these tips to get more sleep during the week.
- Follow a regular sleep schedule. Avoid variation in your bed- and wake-times, and do your best to keep a similar sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends.
- Maintain a regular exercise routine during the week. Avoid working out too close to bedtime, though, especially if you’re doing anything high-intensity.
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Use blackout curtains to block streetlights and early morning sun. Turn down the thermostat to a cool, mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Mask any noise with a white noise machine or playlist.
- Clear your mind of distractions. Don’t look at your electronics in bed, and turn them off for at least an hour beforehand if you can.
- Watch what you eat at night. Heavy meals and drinking can upset your stomach and your sleep. Be careful of your caffeine intake, too — taking care to avoid it at least six hours before bed.
Sleeping in on the weekends can feel great, but it makes returning to early Monday mornings even tougher. See if the tips above help you get more sleep during the week, and you may not need to sleep in so late on the weekend.
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