THIS PAINS me to say - more than I can tell you - but it may be time to give up the weekend sleep-in. It turns out that, contrary to what you might believe, it is not possible to make up for lost or short sleep throughout the week by bingeing on sleep at the weekend. As pleasurable and relieving as that activity may be.
One of the leading sleep scientists in the world has just published a manifesto on sleep called Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams and, in it, he details exactly how harmful this sort of behaviour is for our bodies, our minds, our economies, our jobs and our personal lives. Basically, we should be taking responsibility for our own health and sleeping properly and restoratively throughout the week, for about eight hours a night. Anyone who gets less than that is putting themselves in danger of increased chances of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety and dementia.
In fact, Walker argues that we are in the midst of a global sleep deprivation epidemic - and the World Health Organisation agrees. Under-sleeping is perhaps more common than you even expect: if you're getting less than 7 hours, you're technically sleep-deprived. If you could keep sleeping naturally past your alarm clock in the morning, you're probably not getting enough of the good quality sleep you require. If you can barely function before midday without a shot of coffee to pep you up, then you are likely low on sleep (coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil, which says all we need to know about our levels of wakefulness). Sadly, the same goes for the people like me, who sleep in luxuriously on weekends to make up for lost sleep during the week. Sleep just doesn't work that way, unfortunately.
"People wobble their sleep schedule around and that's not good," says Walker. "Regularity is key. So people often short-sleep during the week and then they will try and binge at the weekend as if sleep is like the bank where you can accumulate a debt and then pay it off. You can't - the brain can never get back the sleep that it's lost. The other problem with that behaviour, which we actually call social jet lag, is that you're dragging your body-clock, your 24-hour circadian rhythm, back and forwards in time on a weekly basis. That's harmful to your health. Irregularity of sleep is a huge problem."
So, if we're going to get the full benefits of sleep - which include making us more creative, more attractive and more emotionally regulated, among other astonishingly good health benefits like a reduced vulnerability to heart attack, stroke and dementia - we should be giving ourselves an eight to nine-hour sleep opportunity window. We could go to bed at 10 and get up at 7, for instance, that would be eminently sensible. But when was the last time you did that consistently, every night, even for a week? We're more likely to allow longer commute times, work, email, phone screens, Twitter, Netflix and chill sessions, coffee, alcohol, socialising and stress to keep us awake into the night, wake us up throughout and leave us feeling unrested in the morning. And then we sleep in at the weekend like it will somehow make up for it all. But it won't - so it's time we got real with ourselves and started prioritising decent sleep every night of the week. Sweet dreams.
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