Can You Really Catch Up On Lost Sleep?

Study findings may surprise you
Woman sleeping in bed

Does sleep take a back seat to life these days? Whether you work late, spend your evenings on chores and errands, or struggle with insomnia, it’s easy to get into bad sleep habits. Once you do finally sit down in the evening, you may end up watching one last TV show, reading or working on other odds and ends.

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When you’re dragging the next morning, you vow that you’ll catch up on sleep this weekend. But is that even possible? Can you really “catch up” on sleep?

Limited study, surprising finding

A research study of young, healthy men recently suggested this surprising finding: Some people are able to reverse the metabolic effects of less sleep with two nights (a weekend’s worth) of extra sleep.

During the study, 19 young men first slept normally, getting about 8.5 hours of sleep for four nights. Then, at a different time, they got only about 4 to 4.5 hours of sleep for four nights, followed with two nights for catching up (sleeping about 9.7 hours on those nights).

Researchers calculated that their risk of developing diabetes increased significantly (by 16 percent) after sleep deprivation, but returned to normal levels after the two nights of extended sleep.

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However, the results from this short study might not apply to everyone, cautions sleep disorders specialist Harneet Walia, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center.

A better strategy, she says, is to avoid sleep deprivation in the first place. And if you’re trying to get enough sleep but can’t, a sleep expert can help identify and manage the cause of your insomnia.

A lot of us are losing sleep

If you’re sleep-deprived — and that means getting less than seven or eight hours of sleep a night for adults — you’re not alone. About one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And that can spell trouble. It’s not that you just feel tired and inattentive when you don’t get enough sleep. Even in the short-term, you can suffer memory problems and increase your risk of a car accident or a mishap at work.

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Over time, inadequate sleep triggers hormonal and nervous system changes in your body that negatively affect your health, Dr. Walia says.

Short on sleep — long on consequences

Doctors link insufficient sleep to a list of unhealthy changes in your body that sometimes lead to serious health problems. Sleep deprivation:

  • Increases risk of diabetes. Your body starts having trouble regulating blood sugar with just a few nights of inadequate sleep.
  • Increases risk of high blood pressure and heart attack. It increases inflammation and causes your body to pump out stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
  • Contributes to weight gain. It unleashes a hormonal double-whammy on your desire for food. Your body makes more of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and less of the hunger-inhibiting hormone, leptin. And, adding insult to injury, a recent study has shown sleep deprivation also increases your brain’s production of its own marijuana-like chemical that increases appetite.

Give sleep equal billing with diet, exercise

Dr. Walia says sleep deserves the same amount of attention that we often focus on other lifestyle issues such as improving our diet and getting more exercise. You need to make it a priority in your life to help maintain good health.

“Once people become aware of the effects of sleep deprivation, they realize that getting proper sleep is as important as other types of lifestyle modifications.”

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