Author and CEO, Ariana Huffington, describes sleep as the “secret weapon” for living a productive and healthy life. Due to its restorative nature, the importance of getting a solid amount of quality sleep every night can’t be understated.
Despite this fact, our busy lifestyles, demanding jobs and technology can often steal away many precious hours of sleep from us during the week, which many people try to catch up on come the weekend.
But, is it really possible to catch up on missed sleep?
Say hello to sleep debt
As you sleep, your body goes through a number of processes to heal itself. According to Healthline, your brain uses this time to create new pathways and catalogues information from the day, deciding what’s important to keep and what isn’t.
Sleep also heals and repairs your blood vessels and heart while also relaxing your sympathetic nervous system and lowering your cortisol levels.
When you continually cheat yourself out of this healing sleep, you bank up what is called sleep debt — which is basically the amount of sleep you owe your body. Unfortunately, unlike money, it’s not really possible to pay this debt back.
A study from 2016 found that for every hour of sleep lost, it takes your body four full days to recover. If you’re averaging less than seven hours of sleep every weeknight, it’s virtually impossible to make that up in a meaningful way for your body.
In fact, data from another study in 2010 found that even getting an extra 10 hours of shut-eye to compensate sleeping only six hours a night for up to two weeks still has a drastic effect on your reaction times and focus, similar to if you’d pulled an all-nighter.
So, unfortunately, your Saturday morning lie-ins aren’t really making a dent in the sleep debt you accrued during the week.
How much sleep do you need every night?
This varies for everyone, with some people needing a solid 10 hours to feel human while others can function relatively well on seven. To figure out your optimal amount of sleep, experts recommend tracking how you feel every morning after varying hours of sleep.
This allows you to tap into the natural rhythm of your body and make the decision based on your own requirements. Generally speaking, seven to nine hours of sleep per night is what you should be aiming for to reap all of the restorative benefits.
What are the health consequences of lack of sleep?
Inconsistency in your sleep patterns can have negative effects on your health and lead to weight gain, anxiety and it can even dull your immune response, says Healthline.
A research paper from 2019 found that people who cut their sleep by five hours on weeknights but attempted to make up for it on the weekend still experienced negative health outcomes. These included reduced energy expenditure, excess calorie intake after dinner, weight gain and detrimental changes to how the body uses insulin.
How to improve your sleep
After surviving on little sleep during the first two years of running The Huffington Post, Huffington collapsed from exhaustion at her desk while checking emails. This episode ended with Huffington breaking her cheekbone on the desk and made her realise that she needed to reevaluate her relationship with sleep.
“I can tell you with authority that when I’m exhausted, when I’m running on empty, I’m the worst version of myself,” Huffington told CNBC. “I’m more reactive. I’m less empathetic. I’m less creative. And all of us can testify to that.”
While you might still be able to function with a lack of sleep, Huffington says that your life will become much more productive when you start to prioritise sleep on a daily basis, not just on the weekend.
“I’m not saying that you can’t succeed by burning out,” said Huffington. “But you can succeed much more effectively, and much more sustainably, and with much less damage to your health and your relationships.”
To change your relationship with sleep, you have to formulate a solid sleep routine and stick to it. “Creating a transition ritual to sleep is absolutely key,” Huffington told The Guardian.
Her routine starts by turning off all devices, then she takes a bath and gets in her pj’s. Huffington then reads for a while but “only physical books that have nothing to do with work — poetry, novels, philosophy. It’s a 30-minute ritual now, it’s not as if it takes a long time. I’ve given myself time to slow down.”
Other ways to improve the quality and length of your sleep include eating snooze-inducing foods at night, paying close attention to room temperature, as this can affect your ability to fall to sleep, exposing yourself to morning sunshine and moving your body every day.