Sometimes it’s flat-out impossible to get enough sleep. While seven to eight hours of shut-eye is the recommended nightly dosage for optimal health and performance, let’s face it: Between long work days, pre-dawn wake-up calls, and late-night Making a Murdererbinge-watching, on average, Americans getcloser to five to six hours a night.
Everyone is familiar with the short-term side effects of not getting enough sleep—temporary memory loss, impaired brain function, a bad mood you just can’t shake. But the long-term effects of sleep deprivation include metabolic dysfunction, high blood pressure, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Pretty serious.
For years, most experts said it was virtually impossible to catch up on lost sleep—and repair the damage done to your body. But new research suggests you just might be able to make up for lost sleep with a single weekend of rest.
The news comes from a University of Chicago study of the effects of sleep deprivation on insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity—the ability of insulin to regulate the body’s blood sugar levels—is closely linked to diabetes. The more insulin sensitivity decreases, the more likely a patient is to develop Type 2 diabetes.
When researchers studied 19 healthy subjects over two weeks, they found a correlation between the amount of sleep and insulin sensitivity. During the first week, patients slept a normal amount—8.5 hours for four days in a row—and experienced regular metabolic and insulin levels. For the next four days, subjects were only allowed to sleep a measly 4.5 hours. Their bodies totally rebelled: When tested, their insulin sensitivity dropped by 23 percent and their diabetes risk increased by 16 percent. Yikes.
But, following the four-day period of sleep deprivation, subjects were allowed two days of extra-long rest, averaging 9.7 hours of sleep. When retested, their insulin sensitivity and diabetes risk had returned to normal levels.
It’s promising news for most of us—the idea that we could potentially catch up on zzzs and reverse the damage from a few restless nights. Of course, other side effects of prolonged sleep deprivation still need to be studied, like the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. The study also noted that the subjects were healthy young males, and that further research would be needed to understand if the effects might apply to other populations.
Having trouble falling asleep, even on the weekends? Try a natural sleep aid like magnesium or melatonin to help sweet dreams come more quickly. Or, go the unconventional route and opt for a weighted blanket, like one U.S. veteran who was suffering from insomnia. Using a 17-pound blanket nightly helped him doze off, possibly because of its calming effects (heavy blankets are often used as a tactile tool to help children with autism and ADHD relax).
Regardless of whether you’re clocking a solid eight hours every night or whether your sleep schedule is a little more erratic, it’s nice to know that sleeping in on the weekend might not only help diminish those bags under your eyes—it could actually boost your overall health, too.
Illustration by Karley Koenig