You went on a shopping spree last month, so this month you’re eating tuna out of a can. On Saturday night you dipped into the Ben & Jerry’s – hard – so you spent an extra hour at the gym on Monday. So why can’t you sleep til noon on Saturday to make up for that late night on Tuesday? You ought to be able to make up for sleep you missed during the week by just doubling down on Saturday morning.
But actually, well, you just can’t.
Or, you can, but don’t expect it to make up for your sleep deficit. Unlike cash and calories, your body just doesn’t give you the same do over for sleep shortages. While you may be able to occasionally make up for a bad night by going to bed early the next evening, you generally can’t make up for routine sleep deprivation with a marathon slumber a few days later. There are reports that you can make up for five hours or so, but once you blow past that, you just can’t un-ring that (alarm) bell. Our bodies are wired to get as much of the REM sleep as possible, so human nature will do the best she can, fortunately. But in general, our bodies want to sleep when they should, not after that big project is finished.
The heavy price of sleeping light. While it’s obvious that lack of sleep leads to sleepiness (you knew that, right?), it’s the not-so-obvious that could do you in. For one, the lack of sleep is really the same as disruption in sleep, at least as interpreted by your body. If your normal rhythm is to sleep from 11 to 7, but you end up only in bed from 2 to 7, your circadian rhythm is off, which leads to hormonal disruptions. That translates into attention span challenges, retention problems, productivity impairment and mood disorders. And your body can’t just reset for the sleep you missed during the week through a catch-up session Saturday morning.
You’re lying to yourself. The worst of the symptoms are twofold – and both mean that you don’t even know how bad it is. First, the lack of sleep means your brain begins to shut down certain functionalities in a specific order, and one of the first is where our judgment operates. So you’ll quickly lose the perspective to realize just how tired you are. Second, your body does a neat hat trick that actually makes you feel less tired the more sleep-deprived you are, so that happy, perky adrenaline high is all smoke and mirrors – you’re tired, you just don’t know it. Unlike the binge eating or retail therapy, you won’t be as conscious of the damage you’re doing.
You can sleep your way back to redemption. Well, kind of. But think months, not days, if you want to atone for the sleep you missed during the week. There is evidence that if you can sleep naturally – that means going to bed when you feel drowsy and waking up when your body says so, not when your alarm clock does — you can undo much of the damage. But this will take several months, and be prepared for ten-hour nights at first. So-called “recovery sleep” can, over time, help your body get back to the right duration and intensity of sleep that it needs as if you had treated it right in the first place.
What you need depends on who you are. How much are you cheating yourself with your fake make-up weekend sleep? Only your genes can say. Some people need seven hours of sleep; others need nine. So if you’re only getting five hours per night during the week, the damage done differs by your individual needs. But no one can beat the system entirely, as studies consistently show that you can only get back some of that sleep you missed during the week, and the longer you keep shortchanging yourself, the more damaging the aggregate effects.
But enough of the lecturing. The point is, you can undo some of that sleep-deprivation damage, if you put in the time (literally). And, if you’re feeling badly about your pillow abuse, rest easy knowing you’re not the only one. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans sleep less than seven hours per night. That’s up from just 11% in 1943. So millions of others are all around you, half awake, lulled into a false sense of perkiness, messing up their natural rhythms . . . ok, ok. You get it. Now get to sleep.me-every-morning