One third of us get six or fewer hours of sleep a night, according to a newly published study in the journal Sleep. That’s an hour less than the seven or more that adults should get. To make up for the sleep deficit we accrue during the week, many of us sleep in on the weekends. But that’s a bad move for all sorts of reasons, according to a new study from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The researchers recruited 36 healthy adults between the ages of 18 to 39 and monitored their food consumption, exposure to light and sleep, dividing participants into three groups. Over a nine day period, one group got nine hours of sleep and another got five. The third group got five hours of sleep per night over five days with the freedom to sleep in as much as they wanted the following two days. The two groups with five hours of sleep “both ate more after dinner snacks, gained similar amounts of weight, and had impairments to their insulin sensitivity, which is a measure of their ability to regulate their blood sugar,” senior author Kenneth Wright, Jr., Ph.D., a professor in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, tells Thrive Global. The ones who slept over the weekend saw a mild improvement in all three areas, but once they returned to their five-hour sleep week, their health gains disappeared.
Thrive sat down with Wright to learn what we can do to keep our sleep debt to a minimum:
Get rid of the “sleep-stealers”
Shut down your gadgets an hour earlier and go to bed. “If someone is getting only six hours of sleep and wants to get that seventh hour, they should reduce their use of electronics by one hour and devote that time to sleep.” Wright says this small behavioral change will improve your health and productivity.
Take a nap
Wright suggests taking a strategically timed nap over the weekend, pointing to a study conducted by sleep scholar David Dinges, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dinges’ research shows that people who get six hours of sleep one night (with a two hour nap during the following day) exhibit comparable cognitive function and performance to those who get eight consecutive hours over one whole night. “That wasn’t catch-up sleep, per se. It was limited to making sure they got the full eight hours of sleep,” Wright emphasizes.
Science also shows that short catnaps (as brief as seven to 10 minutes) improve brain function and alertness. Keep in mind that those benefits are limited, he says. “We don’t know if those naps will be able to reverse performance and cognitive impairments that we see if you’re not getting enough sleep on a chronic basis,” he says.
Create a consistent sleep schedule
Ultimately, Wright recommends setting a sleep schedule that assures we’ll get seven to eight hours each night. “That way when you do have one or two bad nights, it won’t impact you as much,” he says.
When asked if there are any other tips to regaining lost sleep, Wright is quick to swat the notion away. “What’s the alternative to smoking? Just don’t do it,” he says. “That has to be the message for sleep. Sleep is critical for our health and well-being. There is no replacement for it.”
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