Why it's a good idea to sleep in on the weekend

A study published in February 2019 found that catching up on sleep at the weekend is not such a bad idea, if you really need it.

Why it's a good idea to sleep in on the weekend
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It's no secret that unpleasant things happen when we don't get enough sleep. On the surface, it can make us more irritable, but it can also have long-term repercussions, such as an increased risk of dementia.

Unfortunately, many of us don't get as much sleep as we need, due to work, social obligations or behaviours such as binge-watching our favourite TV shows. This means that many of us are guilty of sleeping in on the weekend.

Previous research has shown that trying to catch up on sleep is a bad idea. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker sums it up this way:

Sleep is not like banking. You can't accumulate debt and pay it back later. If I deprive you of sleep one whole night, and the next night I let you sleep as much as you want, you'll never get back what you lost. You will sleep longer, but you will never get back those eight full hours. The brain doesn't have the capacity to recover that lost sleep.

An occasional sleepover can pass

However, new research contradicts this belief of many sleep specialists, and shows that you may be able to recoup your woefully lost sleep with an occasional lie-in. The Stockholm University study, published in the journal Sleep, reviewed the sleep patterns and average health of 43,000 people.

The results showed that people who slept less than five hours a night, or more than eight hours a night, had higher mortality rates than those who slept more. Overall, it was the amount of sleep a person got that seemed to make a difference.

Torbjörn Åkerstedt, a professor of biological psychology at Stockholm University's stress research centre, who initiated the study, said it seemed to show that if your sleep is bad during the week, and you make up for it at the weekend, you are probably doing your body a favour. Åkerstedt said:

It seems that you can actually compensate by catching up on sleep at the weekend. That's obviously an argument for not doing anything at the weekend. There's probably a limit, beyond that, but it's obviously better to increase your [hours of sleep] at the weekend, rather than not doing it at all.

One of the reasons we feel tired and lethargic during the week is that we are out of sync with our circadian rhythm, also known as the body clock. If we have a regular schedule, our hormones make us feel tired as soon as it's time to go to bed, and wake us up on time in the morning.

Our bodies like routine

It's easy to stay up late, or to let your alarm clock go off. Even the smallest adjustment can give us a rush, like when switching from summer to autumn time. Compensating for sleep deprivation at the weekend may be better than doing nothing at all, but the best thing to do is to keep your schedule as routine as possible. Facer-Childs said:

There has to be a balance, because we get up early during the week, and that creates a sleep debt buildup, and we don't get enough sleep at the weekend.
So it's hard to balance keeping a regular schedule and catching up on some of the sleep we need.
I would say the best thing to do is to try to keep a regular schedule, so get up early during the week, but don't go to bed too late.

The study does not recommend sleeping in every weekend, as the results suggest that too much sleep may also increase the risk of mortality. But if you've had a long week, and you feel your body needs the extra rest, don't feel guilty.