Story at a glance
- Many people in the U.S. don’t get enough sleep during the week, hoping to make it up on the weekend.
- A new study suggests that one night of sleep loss or less than six hours of sleep leads to a big jump in mental and physical symptoms.
- The symptoms persisted and increased when there were consecutive nights of sleep loss.
Sleep is important for recovery and overall health, but researchers are still learning about how much we need to stay healthy. Researchers have even begun studying families who seem to not need very much sleep at all. For the rest of us, new research suggests that keeping a regular sleep schedule is vital to maintaining our mental and physical health.
A new study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests that a few consecutive nights of sleep loss can lead to great deterioration of mental and physical well-being. One night of bad sleep leads to the biggest jump in symptoms, according to the study.
This means that pushing yourself during the week, then trying to recover sleep on the weekends may not actually be a good strategy for your health.
“Many of us think that we can pay our sleep debt on weekends and be more productive on weekdays,” said Soomi Lee, assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida and author of the paper, in a press release. “However, results from this study show that having just one night of sleep loss can significantly impair your daily functioning.”
To study this phenomenon, Lee analyzed data from the Midlife in the United States Study. Nearly 2,000 middle-aged adults participated by providing daily diary data for eight consecutive days. Lee then compared the sleep hours to daily well-being.
Turns out, 42 percent of the participants experienced at least one night of sleep loss, meaning they lost about an hour and half of sleep. When you look at their daily logs of mental and physical well-being, you see that they record feelings of anger, nervousness, loneliness, irritability and frustration as a result of losing sleep. The participants also documented physical symptoms like upper respiratory issues, aches, gastrointestinal issues and other health concerns.
When Lee looked at data across consecutive days of sleep loss, the mental and physical symptoms stayed elevated and didn’t return to baseline levels unless the participants had a night of sleep that lasted more than six hours. The biggest increase in symptoms was after the first night of sleep loss, and the rate slowed with additional days of sleep loss.
This suggests that putting effort into breaking a cycle of bad sleep would be better for overall health than pushing it to the weekend. About one-third of adults in the U.S. sleep fewer than six hours a night. Once that becomes a habit, it’s very difficult for the body to recover from lack of sleep, says Lee. This can affect not only long-term health but also job performance. For these reasons, Lee recommends setting aside more than six hours a night for sleep.
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