Catching up on sleep during the weekend won't spare you from the health effects of losing sleep during the week, according to a recent study published in Current Biology.
For the study, researchers assigned 36 healthy young men and women to one of three groups, each with their own sleep schedules. The first group slept for nine hours each night for 10 days. The second group slept five hours a night, and the third group slept five hours Monday through Friday but could sleep as much as they wanted on the weekend.
What happened to the sleep-deprived participants
The researchers found that both sleep-deprived groups snacked more after dinner than the group that could sleep nine hours and that the sleep-deprived groups subsequently gained weight. Further, the weight gain was more pronounced among men than women. Sleep-deprived men saw a 2.8% weight gain while sleep-deprived women saw a 1.1% weight gain. The men who slept in on the weekend saw a 3% weight gain while the women who slept in on the weekend saw just a 0.05% weight gain.
However, the group who slept in on the weekend also appeared to be at a higher risk of diabetes than the control group that was not sleep deprived, the researchers found. Those participants also saw an increased sensitivity to insulin in their muscles and livers.
According to Kenneth Wright Jr., an author on the study and director of the sleep lab at the University of Colorado, this is an important finding because the muscles and liver are the two most important tissues that take in blood sugar after eating. "That helps us understand why is it that when we don't get enough sleep, we have an increased risk for things like diabetes," Wright said. He added, "[S]hort, insufficient sleep schedules will lead to an inability to regulate blood sugar and increases the risk of metabolic disease in the long term."
Sleep is not a balance sheet
The study shows that people should not think of sleep as a balance sheet, Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said.
Grandner said the concept of catching up on sleep during the weekend is comparable to someone who ate nothing but cheeseburgers and french fries during the week, but ate celery and kale on the weekends and called that a healthy diet. "When you're talking about something as complex as metabolism, it's very much about balance and equilibrium, and when you're chasing numbers of hours and you're trying to make them all add up, that's not about balance," Grandner said.
Separately, Wright noted that the health effects of sleep-deprivation are "long term." He explained, "It's kind of like smoking once was—people would smoke and wouldn't see an immediate effect on their health, but people will say now that smoking is not a healthy lifestyle choice. I think sleep is in the early phase of where smoking used to be."
Wright said the findings indicate that people should prioritize sleep much in the same way they would prioritize exercise or eating healthy. He added that the participants in this study were "incredibly healthy people, with no medical problems, no psychiatric disorders, no drug use, no medications, no sleep problems, nothing at all—so when we put them on these types of schedules, they have the best possible outcomes, they have the lowest risk of any adverse health outcome as far as we can tell."
Wright said the next step in sleep-deprivation research is "to see if weekend sleep would help us if all we did was get one or two bad nights of sleep" (Johnson, Washington Post, 2/28; LaMotte, CNN, 2/28; Ducharme, TIME, 3/4).
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