I went to Spain with a friend last week. It was my first trip out of the country in over a year, and my first in over two years, so we tried to get it right. We wandered Seville on scorching 110 degree days (the country set a new temperature record), drank espressos and cervezas while locals napped, and took tapas tours after sunset .
On the initial flight, a red eye, I had “slept” for 45 minutes. And throughout the week, there was only one time – according to my WHOOP app – where I managed to get more than four hours of sleep a night. Maybe if we had sat on a New England beach for seven days I would have left a vacation relaxed and restored. But we chose to go to the middle of Europe.
My natural inclination when I returned was to sleep as much as possible. I was zoned for almost 11 hours the first night back. For most of us, this is the obvious remedy of choice after a big week. Whenever you overdo it – too much travel, work, training – and your personal battery hits 1%, you can always count on one or two massive sleeps to strike back.
In fact, this is how the majority of America treats the weekend. Nearly 60% of the country’s little sleepers seek to pay off their “sleep debt” by getting more sleep on Saturdays and Sundays. The habit begins in adolescence and, in adulthood, seems routine, even routine deserved – similar to eating a piece of cake after a training class.
But is this really how this whole system should work? Whether it’s a one-time event after an epic trip or fail-safe after another shitty week, can we really afford to put all of our health – and happiness – on a double-digit nap? ?
Sleep debt, more commonly known as sleep deprivation, is the difference between how much sleep you’re supposed to get and how much sleep you actually get. Somonologists generally recommend seven to nine hours a night, but more than a third of Americans sleep less than six hours a night. The cost of a regular lack of sleep has detrimental short- and long-term effects: Sleep debt has been linked to mood swings, memory problems, accidents on the road or at work, arguments at home, obesity, heart problems, dementia and death rates.
Fascinatingly (in a truly depressing way), people who constantly function on little sleep are unable to discern gaps in their daily performance. They may have a general idea that they should “go to bed a little earlier”, but lack of sleep, according to one study, “impairs neurobehavioural performance and self-rated alertness.” In other words, not only does poor sleep make people fuzzy, but it also blurs them. so blurry, they don’t realize they are blurry. The authors of this study succinctly noted: “Millions of people routinely stay awake for more than 18 hours a day, resulting in reduced performance. ”
For much of the 2010s, sleep performance metrics in the United States were heading in the wrong direction. Experts have attributed this disturbing trend to an increase in the use of smartphones before (and often in) bed; As we’ve covered at length, blue light from screens sabotages the pineal gland’s ability to release melatonin, a crucial hormonal aid for falling asleep. Then the pandemic arrived. At first, quarantine felt like a lifeline – no more commuting! – but it was short lived. More than half of the country say they “spend less time sleeping than before the pandemic”, while 67% believe their sleep “was healthier before the lockdown”.
How is that possible, if we technically have more time to sleep in the era of the WFH? For reasons similar to why weekend nights are not the recipe for a healthier sleep routine. Taking extra hours here and there – like working odd jobs to pay monthly rent – is not a sustainable solution. Sleep has suffered since the start of the pandemic because people are working longer hours. It is suffered because people are stressed about the safety of their loved ones and the state of our country. It is no wonder that insomnia is on the rise, and even when people to do manage to fall asleep, they are more likely to have traumatic dreams.
Here’s a new term for you: social jet lag. This is one of the main reasons why you should reconsider your habit of sleeping on weekends. If you sleep from, say, 12 pm to 7 am every night of the week, but 1 am to 10 am on Saturdays and Sundays, you are shifting the “middle” of your sleep from 3:30 am to 6 am. Researchers have described it as “living against your internal clock. You are basically throwing away your body massively, temporary curve, in defiance of the sleep-wake cycle you’ve set up to run throughout the work week, then ask you to return to your regular schedule in time for work on Monday morning.
No wonder so many of us worry about Sunday fears, drink caffeine all week, and feel positively zombified at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays. Approached with good intentions, the midpoint of sleep is a useful number for understanding the peculiarities of your circadian rhythm. But every time it’s jostled forward, the circadian rhythm races quickly; biological functions from body temperature to metabolism suffer, as does your decision making. Little sleepers, for example, are often late-night snackers too. They are also more likely to smoke or drink, and less likely to exercise.
A recent study actually found a link between a later midpoint of sleep and an increased rate of depression. Researchers sifted through data from 800,000 sleepers, intersecting their circadian tendencies with their risk of depression, and found that “early risers” had a 23% lower risk of major depression. This type of research clearly points to the best way forward: if you need to recoup your weekend sleep debt, prioritize bedtime, not an hour later.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. Most of us have been on this grind since high school. Adolescents are expected to sleep between eight and ten hours a night. They don’t. Gen Z is shaping up to be the most sleep deprived cohort in history. For the record (I’m a young millennial) I don’t remember any of my high school mates – mini-adults with waking times at 6 a.m., commutes every day, six classes a day, a sports practice, homework, preparation for standardized tests – get anywhere close to eight hours. Rather six. Many of them are under five years old. When you come of age, used to sacrificing sleep, it becomes easier to ignore circadian rhythms and take in hours of sleep as they happen. Not to mention the drinking culture of college students and young people in their twenties, which shatters healthy sleep patterns.
So, how do you break this cycle and regain your naturalness? Step by step. Try to start looking at weekends as an opportunity to proactively get good sleep, instead of blindly aiming for “a lot” of sleep. Advance bedtime (weekday evenings like weekend evenings), to a time that will help you reach the recommended seven hours, and to a midpoint before sunrise. The ideal sleep routine, at the end of the day, is a delicate balance between consistency and moderation. Your body eats routine. As one study points out, the relationship between sleep and longevity is U-shaped: people who sleep the most don’t necessarily sleep the longest. Long sleepers actually have a 25% increased risk of mortality. (That’s 65% for little sleepers.)
The key is to spend time in this great place every night. For those who feel intimidated by this concept – I can’t sleep this saturday?! – know that weekend sleep can quite make up for short sleep during the week. Keep doing this until you can make lasting changes. The alternative would be 24 hour sleep deprivation, which I just experienced in Spain. I recommend cathedrals, not hallucinations. Weekend sleep will sweeten things up for a day, two at most, then it’s back to another “big week.” Next time we ride, make sure you’ve gotten the 40 winks you deserve.
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