Can You Actually Catch up on Sleep?

Getting enough sleep is important for your health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults need to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Despite that fact, the CDC reports that more than 33 percent of Americans do not get enough sleep. The agency also found that in regions of the country in which chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes were prevalent, people there reported higher rates of not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.

Many people in the U.S. believe that it is possible to catch up on sleep. They may try to make up for not getting enough sleep at night by sleeping in on the weekends and taking naps. A recent epidemiological study in Sweden indicates that catching up on sleep may help to reduce some of the mortality risks associated with chronic sleep deficits.

What Does the Phrase Mean?

Catching up on sleep means to try to sleep for longer periods of time to make up for not getting enough sleep during the work week. People might try to make up for lost sleep by sleeping in on the weekends. Others may try to take naps in the afternoons to make up for not getting enough sleep during the night time.

The cultural significance of trying to catch up on sleep points to the fact that Americans tend to get up much earlier than people in other cultures and get less sleep than Europeans. Americans also are expected to work more hours each week than people who live in Western Europe, meaning that chronic sleep deficits during the work week are common problems in the U.S.

Does It Really Work?

To make up for a lack of sleep during the work week, many Americans try to catch up on the sleep that they missed by sleeping for more time on the weekends or taking naps during the day. A past study from Harvard University that was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine in 2010 found that people who try to catch up on sleep by taking naps and sleeping in on weekends were only associated with performance improvements in the short term. When people who were chronically sleep-deprived tried to make up for it by taking naps and sleeping in on weekends, the researchers found that their performance during the daytime deteriorated rapidly over the long term.

That study had a small sample size of nine volunteers who were between the ages of 21 and 34 and were healthy. Four of the volunteers were women and five were men. The participants were studied over a 38-day chronic sleep loss period. They then went to a 21-day period during which they alternated opportunities for naps and sleeping in to make up for sleep losses. Finally, they had a 10-day recovery period.

The Swedish study was recently published in the Journal of Sleep Research and was an epidemiological study that followed 43,380 Swedish adults over 13 years. The researchers were interested in studying the link between early mortality and chronic sleep deprivation. The participants answered surveys about their work week and weekend sleep habits over the 13-year period.

People who reported getting five or fewer hours of sleep per night had a 65 percent greater risk of early mortality as compared to people who routinely got six or seven hours of sleep each night. However, the researchers found no difference in the risk of early mortality between people who regularly got six to seven hours of sleep per night and those who got less sleep during the week but made up for the sleep loss by sleeping longer periods during the weekend.

This indicates that catching up on sleep on the weekends or by taking naps might help to reduce some of the health risks that are associated with not getting enough sleep. However, when the Harvard study is taken into context, it also indicates that trying to catch up on sleep on the weekends or by taking naps may not help to improve performance on cognitive tasks over the long term. Both research teams have indicated that more research is needed to understand the impact of not getting enough sleep and trying to catch up on sleep on a continuing basis has on people’s bodies.

Catching up on sleep on an occasional basis may help people to perform better during the work week and may help to cancel out some of the negative health effects of not getting enough sleep. More research needs to be done to understand what a yo-yo type of sleeping schedule may do over decades. If you occasionally don’t get enough sleep, taking a nap or sleeping in on weekends might help you to feel refreshed. However, you should still try to get at least six to seven hours of sleep per night on a regular basis for optimal health.

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