Can you catch up on sleep over the weekend? Here’s an adult sleep coach’s take on this commonly-asked question.
Many people believe that if they don’t get enough sleep during the week, they can catch up on the weekend. And in fact, sleeping in on a Saturday may feel better. But what’s really going on?
The motivation for sleeping in on Saturdays
Too little sleep is a risk factor for chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes/obesity, heart disease/stroke, even death!1 Therefore, wanting to catch up on sleep lost during a busy week seems to make sense.
Here we’re talking about sleep debt (sometimes called a sleep deficit), like our bodies are a bank account. Sleep debt is the number of hours your body needs vs. what you actually get.2, 3
Of course, like a bank account, withdrawals are cumulative. The hour or two you miss a night add up.
The reality of the situation
But let’s look at this myth more closely and bring in some research:
- If—like 1/3 of Americans—you get fewer than 6 hours of sleep at night4 on 5 weekdays, in theory that’s 10 hours to “make up” in 2 days (assuming we use the 8 hour/night recommendation). I’m not sure about you, but that feels like time I’d rather use for other weekend endeavors!
- Regardless, research shows that it takes your body up to 4 days to recover from each hour lost,5 and after 10 days of sleep restriction, even an equal number of days is insufficient for full recovery. What is “recovered?” Recovery from cognitive dysfunction, metabolic dysfunction, and detrimental changes to how your body uses insulin, to name a few. In one particular study “…all sleep-related measures returned to baseline on the 12th day of the recovery stage.”6
So while you might subjectively feel a bit better from getting closer to your recommended 7-9 hours for 1 or 2 nights, it’s not enough to undo the underlying damage from a week’s worth of sleep deprivation.
Your body doesn’t see 7-9 hours’ sleep/night as an average over a week; it’s not like moving a calendar appointment around! Your body craves regularity.
Irregularity can also cause longer-term sleep problems because it disrupts your circadian rhythm (your internal sleep clock);3 for example, your body might start moving melatonin secretion later.
This can be why you sometimes fail at sleeping in even when you want to!
The best thing to do
Your body gets trained into a rhythm. So, the best approach is to view your sleep as preventative medicine and prioritize your sleep each and every night.