It’s one of life’s most irritating truths: The restful joy of sleeping in on the weekend will likely be followed by a brutal wake-up come Monday morning. Sleeping in on the weekend is tempting, especially if you don’t feel like you’re getting enough sleep during the work week.
But while temporarily satisfying, those extra hours may do more harm than good. Inverse spoke to two sleep experts about the pros and cons of sleeping in on the weekend and how you can develop better sleep patterns overall.
Is sleeping in on the weekend bad for you?
Jamie Zeitzer is an associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Stanford University and a circadian psychologist. He tells Inverse that sleeping in on the weekend is more nuanced than whether it’s “good” or “bad.”
“There's a balance that you have to strike,” he says. “If you’re not getting enough sleep, sleeping in a little every now and then probably isn’t completely bad.”
There is a downside, though. Zeitzer says that sleeping in “leads to a more erratic sleep schedule. And that kind of erratic sleep schedule will cause an erratic light-dark schedule, which then causes the circadian system to be weaker. That makes it more difficult to go to sleep at a regular time and wake up at a regular time.”
Our circadian clock is the internal clock we all have that regulates the sleep and wake cycle. It’s highly impacted by light; going to bed when it’s light or waking up when it’s dark feels so unnatural in part because we’re fighting against our natural circadian rhythm.
Whitney Roban, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, feels that the tradeoff Zeitzer outlines just isn’t worth it.
“One of the most important aspects of healthy sleep is a consistent sleep schedule,” she tells Inverse. “And that means trying to go to bed and waking up about the same time every day, with maybe an hour of fluctuation on the weekend.”
While it may feel like sleeping in is helping you “catch up” on sleep, especially if you’re sleep deprived, it’s probably not working as well as you think, Roban says. “When we mess up our sleep and wake cycle trying to sleep in on the weekends, you might think you're going to feel better. But Sunday [night], you’re going to have a harder time getting to sleep, which will make you end up feeling worse on Monday. So it really defeats the purpose of sleeping in.”
The health consequences of irregular sleep
Admittedly, getting up bright and early every morning comes easier to some people than others, and Zeitzer says differences in our circadian rhythms may be why. This all-important internal clock tells us when to wake up and go to sleep, but, like much of humans’ physiology, not all circadian clocks function exactly the same way.
“One of the things that the clock does is activate certain physiological mechanisms that help prepare you for being awake, notably, cortisol,” he says. “Cortisol is released in anticipation of you waking up; so if you get up at seven, your cortisol is going to start rising at, say, six.”
One of the main things cortisol does is “free up glucose,” Zeitzer says. “So you then have glucose in your blood that you can use.”
When you see people who bound out of bed at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, they likely have more glucose in their blood at that moment than you, their sleepy counterpart.
“So when you have an erratic schedule, the timing of the surge of cortisol and therefore glucose isn’t going to be aligned to waking up,” Zeitzer says. And that can lead to health problems. For example, people who work the night shift have higher rates of type two diabetes and obesity, partly because of issues with glucose regulation.
In addition to diabetes and obesity, the long-term health consequences of an irregular sleep schedule can also include “Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer,” Roban adds.
Tips for developing a regular sleep schedule
Roban knows how hard it is to get out of bed when you’re still tired, but she thinks “sleep education” can help. For example, if you know that sleeping in is only messing your sleep schedule up further, you might be able to force yourself out of bed a little faster.
“The other thing I recommend is not to get on your phone the second you wake up. It’s important to have a night routine, but a morning routine is important too,” she says. “So do something you love in the morning, something you’ll be excited to get out of bed for. Whether it’s the first cup of coffee, getting outside into the fresh air and sunlight, meditation, or something else.”
Zeitzer adds sleeping with the shades open can help get the “wake” part of your circadian rhythm going.
“Even if you’re sleeping, the light is still impacting your circadian rhythm and kicking it into gear at that earlier hour,” he says.
As someone who loves to sleep in and is a bona fide night owl, it brings me no pleasure to report that sleeping in on the weekend isn’t doing much good. But the science is pretty clear that an irregular sleep schedule is harmful in the short and the long run. So rise and, perhaps reluctantly, shine.