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Health Update: Catching up on Sleep is a Myth!

Health Update: Catching up on Sleep is a Myth!

Sleep problems have long been acknowledged as a symptom of psychiatric and neurological disorders, including depression and Alzheimer’s. However, more and more, researchers are examining the connection between disrupted sleep and illnesses. Scientists who initially were interested in cognitive functions such as memory or brain development are finding themselves concentrating on sleep because it is such an essential element. In 1942, a Gallup poll established that adults slept an average of 7.9 hours per night. In 2013, the average adult had trimmed more than an hour off that number. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about one third of adults fail to get the recommended seven hours.

Insomnia is both a risk factor for depression and a disorder of people with depression. Data shows that adults over 50 with an abundance of symptoms of insomnia were more likely to fall than those without. Studies have also linked pain to poor sleep, showing that older people with sleep problems are more likely to acquire pain, and vice versa.

The bad news is that research suggests if you are sleep deprived during the week, you can't just catch up on sleep on the weekends. The negative health effects of skimping on sleep during the week can’t be reversed by lengthy weekend sleep sessions, according to a new study. Researchers have long been aware that routine sleep deprivation can cause weight gain and increase other health risks, including diabetes. But for those who compel themselves to get out of bed blurry-eyed every weekday after too few hours of sleep, there has been this anticipation that turning off the alarm on Saturday and Sunday will repay the weekly sleep debt and reverse any ill effects. The research, published in Current Biology, reveals this is not so. In spite of complete freedom to sleep in and nap during a weekend recovery period, participants in a sleep laboratory who were restrained to five hours of sleep on weekdays gained nearly three pounds over two weeks and underwent metabolic disruptions that increased their risk for diabetes over the long term. While weekend recovery sleep had some benefits after a single week of insufficient sleep, those gains were obliterated when people jumped right back into their same sleep-deprived schedule the following Monday.

The director of the sleep and chronobiology laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who oversaw the research, revealed that if there are benefits of catch-up sleep, they are very short-lived and disappear when you go back to your normal routine, while the subsequent health effects are long-term.

Scientists equate sleep issues to how smoking was in the past, when people would smoke and wouldn’t see an instantaneous effect on their health, however now we realize that smoking is not a healthy lifestyle choice.

Researchers agree that the study reinforces that people need to stop thinking of sleep as a balance sheet. When people are skipping sleep on weekdays with the idea they can make up for it on the weekend, It is similar to eating nothing but cheeseburgers and french fries, Monday through Friday, but consuming only salad on the weekends and calling it a healthy diet.

This study suggests people should prioritize sleep, cutting out the optional culprits that rob us of sleep such as watching television shows or spending time on electronic devices. Even when people don’t have an option about losing sleep due to issues such as child-care responsibilities or job schedules, they should contemplate prioritizing sleep in the same way they would a healthy diet or exercise. The researchers also found an interesting gender difference, in which women got less recovery sleep on the weekends, and also were able to control their eating behavior better than men on the weekends, however they experienced the same metabolic dysfunction, when measured by impairments in how their body responded to blood sugar. It is worth noting also that study participants were incredibly healthy people, with no medical problems, no psychiatric disorders, no drug use, no medications, no sleep problems, so when they were put on these types of schedules, they would have the best possible outcomes, as well as having the lowest risk of any adverse health outcome.

As for understanding the long-term effects of short weekday sleep and long weekend sessions, it will be imperative to broaden the research beyond the artificial conditions and short time frame of this laboratory- based experiment.