The Best Way to Catch Up on Sleep—Especially if You Have Social Jetlag

Feel like you could sleep for a year? That may be because you haven’t slept well in a year. In a survey of 2,500 people from 49 countries published in January, 58 percent reported being unsatisfied with their sleep and two in five said their sleep quality has suffered since the COVID-19 crisis.

Researchers blame two things for our lack of restful Zzz’s: stress and messed up circadian rhythms. 

We don’t need to rehash the last 12 months to prove that all of us felt at least some extra tension. Because of this, you’ve probably experienced first-hand how stress can exacerbate existing sleep problems (like insomnia) and cause new ones

Stress also disturbs our circadian rhythm, the internal biological clock that regulates functions such as hormonal activity, body temperature, eating and digesting, and of course sleep. Limited daylight exposure (from not going outside as much), changes in our daily routines, and even limited social interactions can also alter circadian rhythms

It can be so tempting to sleep super late on the weekends or take an extra-long nap on your days off. However, doing so may only make things worse. Instead, try these expert tips for reducing your sleep debt.

How to Catch Up on Your Sleep Deficit 

Always get up at the same time every day. Yes, even on Saturday and Sunday. Get out of bed, have something to eat, walk around outside to get some sunlight exposure, and then see how you feel. “This will at least keep your rhythm of wake, meal timing, and light exposure in the morning,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution. “If you are feeling really bent [after this], go back to bed. But you might feel pretty good.” If you are, think how much more productive you’ll be in those extra hours—and how much more self-care you can fit in too!

Or go ahead and sleep in—a little. An extra hour (or maybe a little more) spent dozing is OK, according to Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. “I’m not saying don’t sleep in, because sometimes the extra sleep you get on weekends is good,” he says. 

For example, in a study of 19 men who regularly slept only six hours on weeknights, researchers split the guys into three groups: For three nights, they either got 10 hours of sleep, six hours of sleep, or 10 hours in bed with noises during deep sleep to arouse them into shallow sleep but not wake them. Only those who got 10 quiet hours showed increased insulin sensitivity, which may reduce the risk of diabetes, the study authors concluded. So, according to the study, that means getting appropriate, restful sleep may improve your metabolic health. 

However, sleeping in may not help you perform any better. In a study published in American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers put 30 men and women on a sleep schedule: four nights of eight hours, six nights of six hours, and three nights of 10 hours. Although participants reported feeling more alert and less fatigued after the 10-hour sessions, they didn’t perform any better on a test. And, contrary to this study, sleeping more than eight or nine hours often doesn’t make people feel any better, Grandner adds. 

The takeaway: Sleeping in isn’t going to fix your sleep deprivation, and it’s not like you can sleep five hours on weeknights and “erase” that sleep debt by snoozing all weekend. Try as much as you can to be consistent with your sleep, exercise, and meals, and don’t lie in bed awake all Saturday or Sunday morning. If you want to be lazy, go be lazy on the couch. Otherwise, you will start to associate your bed with being awake, rather than sleeping, and that makes it harder to nod off.

Take a power nap. Naps aren’t just for kids. Adults can certainly use them—and there’s a way to maximize their effect. When we sleep, we alternate between light sleep and deep sleep. “You don’t want to wake up in deep sleep. If you do, you will likely feel grumpy, tired, and sluggish,” Grandner says. This is why you only want to nap for 20 to 30 minutes, tops. This length will keep you in light sleep and help you feel less tired and better overall. 

Also, the earlier you can nap, the better. Winter recommends a morning nap (after waking at your normal time), but Grandner says a bit later can work. Just keep in mind that the farther from your normal bedtime, the better your internal clock will realize you’re not trying to get your night’s sleep—and keep you from going into deep sleep.

Go to bed earlier. This one can be harder, and the last thing you want to do is get into bed and just lie there. However, you can make it happen.

Your plan starts in the morning. Expose yourself to very bright light as early as you can to set your internal clock for the day, which may help you feel tired earlier in the evening, Grandner says. At night, starting about an hour before bed, dim the lights and don’t do anything too mentally engaging. That means no work and no good TV shows. 

It also helps to have a regular bedtime routine and to use your bed only for sleep. That way your body associates crawling under the sheets with getting your Zzz’s. Whatever you do, “don’t underestimate the power of just 30 minutes extra sleep,” Winter says. 

Try sleep tracking with your Fitbit device. Did you know that Fitbit’s Sleep Score is Fitbit’s most advanced sleep analysis—and that it can provide insight on how well you slept based on your sleeping heart rate data, time asleep, and restlessness, every night you wear your Fitbit device to bed? 

How it works: Every morning in the Fitbit app, you get a Sleep Score based on the previous night’s rest. This score breaks down your sleep quality based on three factors: sleep duration, sleep depth, and sleep restoration. If you have a device with a heart rate monitor, then you’ll get your top-line Sleep Score. Read more about it here.

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