After a crazy week, you can’t wait to sleep in on Saturday morning. Your body is craving those hours of shut-eye that you missed.
But if this is a typical pattern, you might want to think twice about your sleeping habits. A November 2015 study by the University of Pittsburgh published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that consistent sleep hours are important during the week and on the weekends.
Key word: consistent.
The researchers found that study participants who had a greater disparity between “their sleep schedules on free days versus work days tended to have poorer cholesterol profiles, higher fasting insulin levels, larger waist circumference, higher body-mass index, and were more resistant to insulin than those who had less social jetlag,” states the press release. When researchers adjusted the measurements to account for other factors like physical activity and calorie intake, the results were pretty much the same.
While researchers have long known that sleep disruption can be harmful, this University of Pittsburgh study takes it one step further. Our biological circadian rhythms generally don’t mesh with our socially imposed sleep schedules. This is called social jetlag. “Even among healthy, working adults who experience a less extreme range of mismatches in their sleep schedule, social jetlag can contribute to metabolic problems,” says one of the study’s authors, Patricia M. Wong, MS, of the University of Pittsburgh. “These metabolic changes can contribute to the development of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
So, what gives? Are we supposed to not catch up on the sleep hours that we’re robbed of due to busy work schedules and children? According to Dr. Richard Shane, Ph.D., psychotherapist, Behavioral Sleep Specialist for New West Physicians in Colorado, and founder of Sleep Easily, this would only make things worse.
“It’s also important to consider that if the person did not sleep in and catch up on rest, they would be chronically even more tired,” Shane says. He points out that if we didn’t, other areas of life would be affected, such as increased stress, anxiety, depression, and irritability, and decreased productivity, safety, and ability to think clearly, as well as impaired relationships with others.
So if you have to sleep in on weekends to feel more rested, Dr. Shane says it’s important to limit the amount. He suggests setting your alarm for an hour later, or at the most, two hours. Sleeping in until the afternoon results in an extreme swing, which throws everything off. “By setting a limit to the amount of time you sleep in, you are gaining the benefits of feeling more rested, and simultaneously minimizing the health risks of sleeping in too much,” he says.
While the journal’s study examines the damaging effects of sleeping later on weekends, that’s the result of not getting enough sleep Monday through Friday to begin with. Dr. Shane says it’s more important to treat the root cause. “What people really need is a way to fall asleep more easily at an earlier hour so they get sufficient sleep before they have to awaken for work,” he says.
Wong cautions that it’s not clear yet whether the effect is long-term. Ultimately, if future studies show similar results, she says, “We might need to consider as a society how modern work and social obligations are affecting our sleep and health.” She envisions this occurring through clinical interventions, workplace education, and workplace policy changes.
Now about that nap?