Is my weekend sleep-in pointless?

05 Mar Is my weekend sleep-in pointless?

You may have recently seen the links floating around on social media pointing towards an article published in Current Biology which was subsequently referenced in an article by Carolyn Y. Johnson in the Washington Post. You may see sensational headlines about catch up sleep being pointless… which is not necessarily true. What is true is that the physiological effect of severe sleep deprivation are ongoing and not easily reversible.

The researchers found that if you severely sleep deprive someone, then allow them to “catch-up” on sleep on a weekend, there is a positive effect of this catch up sleep, somewhat reversing the negative impact of the severe sleep deprivation. However when subsequently sleep deprived again, this reversing is lost quickly.  While interesting, and worth your consideration… the sensational headlines may be misleading.

Remember that chronic severe sleep restriction (to 5hrs per night) is really harmful, so it makes sense that repeating this pattern over and over will have consequences. Carolyn Y. Johnson quotes Michael Grandner “Imagine a person who ate nothing but cheeseburgers and french fries, Monday through Friday, but dined only on celery and kale on the weekends and tried to call that a healthy diet”. The article does go on to point out that catch up sleep does have restorative properties, but this is lost during the next period of severe sleep restriction.

Perhaps these headlines and articles are missing some emphasis on a couple of key points here:

  • Is severe sleep restriction so bad that its impact will be felt irrespective if the sleep was catch up or normal beforehand? If so, then the “catch up” sleep is still important and may be helpful
  • Severe sleep restriction is to be avoided, it is harmful no matter what you do to alleviate its effects
  • Catch up sleep is helpful, and can actually help treat the impact sleep deprivation if it occurs, but not all of the benefits of catch up sleep are being measured here
  • Mild sleep restriction is far more common in society but is not considered here. Mild sleep restriction is what most readers are really thinking about when we talk about weekend catch up sleep… i.e. what are the impacts of mild sleep restriction, and does the benefits of weekend catch up sleep last longer into the next week if I’m only mildly sleep deprived each day (i.e. 6-8 hrs per night)?

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