Does Catching Up on Sleep Actually Work?

Health Articles
April 10, 2019

Does catching more Zzzs over the weekend help to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation over the week? Get the lowdown on the efficacy of sleeping in on the weekend and discover how you can optimize your sleep schedule.

“You know what you need? A good lie-in.” We’ve all heard that before, haven’t we? Catching up on sleep during the weekend is standard advice for people who lose out on sleep during the workweek. But does it do any good? New evidence suggests that sleeping more on the weekends may not be the sleep deprivation salve we previously believed it to be. So, let’s get to the evidence…

Is there any evidence that you can ‘catch up’ on your sleep?

Until recently, there was widespread support for the idea that sleeping in on the weekend could help you catch up on shorter sleeps throughout the week. For example, a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research—based on data collected throughout Sweden in 1997—found that people who slept for just a few hours during the week but longer on weekends did not have an increased risk of mortality than those who consistently slept for six to seven hours per night. This would seem to indicate that catch-up snoozing can be an effective way of reducing your sleep debt.
Okay, so what’s changed? Well, a new study from Current Biology has disputed these claims, arguing that mortality isn’t the only important factor; it’s also crucial to look at the health impact. During the study, participants were split into two groups: one had its sleep restricted for the whole study, while the other was allowed to catch up on the weekends. However, the outcomes for the two groups were virtually the same. Both gained weight, snacked more at night, and showed indications of reduced metabolic health.
Although the weekend recovery group initially saw some benefits, they were short-lived, and by the middle of the next week, their metabolisms were just as disrupted as they would have been if they hadn’t had the lie-in. In some cases, the weekend recovery group actually had worse outcomes, including a markedly higher drop in insulin sensitivity. The bottom line is that yo-yoing between oversleeping and undersleeping could do serious damage over the long term, and probably doesn’t help make up for sleep deprivation.

How does ‘social jet lag’ come into all this?

Okay, here’s the thing. Lots of people stay up late on Friday and Saturday, but justify it to themselves because they know they’re going to sleep later the next morning. However, this sort of behavior can be extremely damaging to your body’s internal clock. Some of the main effects include irritable moods, chronic fatigue, poor quality sleep, and an increased risk of heart disease.
Social jet lag is the name we give to that sort of damage, mainly because the side effects are like jet lag, but also because it’s usually a result of people partying or socializing at night! Think about it. We’re essentially living our lives in two different time zones: the time zone that is enforced by work, and the time zone that is enforced by our social obligations. It takes a while for our bodies to adapt to different time zones, and if you’re constantly shifting the timing of your sleep, that’s going to have a substantial effect on your body’s circadian rhythm.
While lots of people would say that the solution to social jet lag is very simple—don’t sleep in on the weekends—it’s much more likely that we just need to listen to your body’s natural wake-up time a little more closely. More sleep throughout the week is going to be much more impactful than simply cutting out extra weekend sleeping altogether.

What’s the verdict?

Looking at the most recent evidence, it seems as if weekend sleep-ins do very little to pay off your sleep debt. And if that’s the case, there’s only one solution: start maintaining a regular sleep pattern throughout the working week and ensure that you get more sleep each night than you usually do. There’s probably nothing wrong with catching up on sleep through weekend sleep-ins every now and then, but you may not want to make a habit of it.