Dr. Breus: Can you ever REALLY catch-up on sleep?

Michael BreusBy Dr. Michael J. Breus, PHD, The Sleep Doctor

In our hectic day and age, it’s one of the most common strategies for managing sleep: after a busy, sleep-deprived work week, many people use the weekend to catch up on their rest. Whether it’s sleeping in on the weekend mornings, or taking an afternoon nap, weekends are frequently a time when people try to bank extra sleep—to make up for not getting enough the week before and to prepare for sleep challenges of the week ahead.

It’s a strategy that’s only partially successful. New research indicates that some of the negative effects of a week of insufficient sleep cannot be remedied with extra sleep on the weekend. Researchers at Penn State University College of Medicine studied the effects of weekend recovery sleep after a week of mild sleep deprivation. They found that make-up sleep on the weekends erased only some of the deficits associated with not sleeping enough the previous week.

The study included 30 healthy adult men and women who participated in a sleep laboratory experiment designed to mimic a sleep-restricted work week followed by a weekend of recovery sleep. The researchers tested using several measures, including daytime sleepiness levels, and attention span.

Their analysis showed weekend recovery sleep delivered mixed results related to daytime sleepiness and attention span.

After six nights of sleep restriction, volunteers’ daytime sleepiness increased significantly.

Two nights of recovery sleep brought levels of daytime sleepiness back to baseline measurements.

Attention levels dropped significantly during the course of the mild sleep-deprivation period.

Attention performance did NOT rebound after a weekend’s worth of recovery sleep.

The takeaway? Relying on weekends to make up sleep lost during the week won’t fully restore health and function. In particular, you should not expect your attention and focus to bounce back after a couple of days of extra sleep. It’s important to note that this study measures the effects of only a single cycle of work-week sleep deprivation and weekend sleep recovery. The effects of an extended pattern of sleep deprivation and recovery followed by more sleep deprivation are not yet known. The benefits seen here in this study may not be replicated over the long term.

This isn’t to say that recovery sleep can’t be useful and effective. As this study shows, on a short-term basis catching up on sleep can reverse some of the problems associated with insufficient rest. Getting extra sleep on a weekend after a particularly busy, sleep-scarce week is one option. Naps are another. Studies show that napping after a single night of sleep deprivation also can reverse some of the adverse effects of sleep loss. Research also indicates that a combination of both can also be effective.

Recovery sleep can be a useful short-term or occasional strategy. But the best sleep strategy is one that avoids sleep deprivation as a regular occurrence. It doesn’t take long for the adverse effects of insufficient sleep to appear. The health consequences of just a week of mild sleep deprivation can be seen in the current study and in other research, which shows insufficient sleep associated with diminished cognitive performance, reduced alertness, and mood problems. Modest sleep deprivation increases inflammation, interferes with healthy immune function, and drives up the impulse to overeat. Even a single night of partial sleep deprivation can increase insulin resistance, disrupt hormone levels, and elevate blood pressure.

None of us may be able to avoid the occasional night or period of insufficient sleep. But a healthy work-week sleep routine can and should leave you with nothing sleep-related to catch up on when the weekend arrives.

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