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Great news for the sleep-deprived: Weekend naps may reverse health damage

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Scientists say that two nights of extra sleep can make up for a week of deprivation

One of the greatest joys we have in life is being able to ignore the alarm clock on weekends and sleep in until we actually feel like waking up. Yet studies over the past few years have emphasized the importance of keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends. But now there is good news for everyone who loves a lie-in: Getting extra zzz’s on the weekends may actually help your health, according to new research.

In a perfect world, we’d all sleep exactly eight hours per night and wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to take on the day. In the real world, many of us drag ourselves out of bed after a long night of Netflix bingeing, work emails or kids vomiting and then head out the door propped up by a caffeinated beverage and a resolution to never do it again… only to have it happen again the next night. Weekends offer the rare occasion to make up for some of that missed sleep and, according to a new study published in Diabetes Care, it’s an opportunity we should be taking.

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Lack of sleep is one of the known risk factors for weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. And missing just three hours per night ups your risk by 16 percent. But researchers found that you can reverse the effect with weekend sleep.

To test their theory, they looked at 19 men in a sleep lab and measured their insulin sensitivity (a marker of diabetes). For the first week, the men were allowed to sleep a normal amount to get a baseline of their blood sugar levels. The following week, they were limited to 4.3 hours of sleep per night for four nights in a row and then allowed to sleep as much as they wanted for the next two days, simulating a typical workweek. The nights of shortened sleep reduced insulin sensitivity by 23 percent but after the “weekend” sleep, the men were right back to normal.

"We found that two long nights spent catching up on lost sleep can reverse the negative metabolic effects of four consecutive nights of restricted sleep," said study author Josiane Broussard, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Although it should be noted that the study was done on a small number of subjects for a short period of time and only looked at young, healthy men. It remains to be seen whether it would be as helpful in older people or those already suffering from diabetes. Still, the findings are encouraging for anyone who misses the occasional night of sleep (which is everyone, right?).

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And while we wait for more research to come out, it makes sense to do your best to get enough sleep and maintain a consistent schedule. But for those times when it just doesn’t work out? Now you have official permission to take that Sunday afternoon nap!

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