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Can “catch up sleep” be good for your health?

December 13, 2018 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Ask everyone you see today if they regularly get enough sleep. Chances are they will say no. And research shows that we collectively are an under-slept nation. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that you can’t “catch up” on lost sleep—that the sleep you didn’t get last night is gone and each night of poor sleep you get will continue to eat at your health.

Well, a new study has turned that idea on its head. In the study, those who slept poorly during the week (five or fewer hours per night) but slept in on weekends had the same mortality risk as people who consistently slept six to seven hours per night. The kicker: those poor sleepers that didn’t sleep longer on weekends showed a 65% higher mortality rate.

This study flips the narrative on how much sleep is good for you and when you need to get it. I’d like to unpack some of these mysteries to show you how you can sleep better—not just on weekends, but every night.

A Game-Changing Sleep Study

This landmark sleep study wasn’t conducted on a couple dozen lab rats. It was conducted in Sweden on 38,000 adults over the course of 13 years—enough people and enough time to derive a lot of meaningful data.

Its primary finding is very important because it debunks the idea that you can’t make up for lost sleep. Instead, it promotes the idea that sleep is like a bank—poor weekday sleep is like a withdrawal and extra weekend sleep is like a deposit.

That should take some pressure off light sleepers and encourage them to slow down and relax on weekends, especially in the mornings.

In addition to its finding that extra sleep on weekends for poor sleepers is strongly linked with prevention of early death, it also revealed this nugget: consistently getting eight or more hours of sleep correlates with a 25% higher chance of premature death.

Together, these findings sound like a mixed signal. Too little sleep is bad. Too much sleep is bad. But it’s OK to get too little sleep on weekdays as long as you get a lot of sleep on weekends. I don’t blame you if you lose sleep just trying to make sense of it all!

Let me make it easier for you: just focus on getting quality sleep every night. Here are a few tips to help you do just that.

What’s Preventing You from Getting Adequate Sleep?

This and many other studies bypass something vital to how much sleep you get: what is keeping you awake? Unfortunately, for most people there isn’t one answer. More often there are many answers. Excess caffeine, stress, anxiety, smoking, diet, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, excess exposure to blue light, the list goes on.

I could write a book to unpack all of the things that are robbing you of your sleep. So briefly, here are a few lifestyle changes that won’t just help you sleep better at night, but also feel better throughout the day.

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Consider a diet change that includes more organic and unprocessed food, more lean proteins and low-sugar vegetables, and minimal artificial flavor enhancers such as aspartame. Further, avoid eating large, late dinners. They require more time and energy for your body to digest them, which can make it hard to fall asleep.

Exercise daily for every reason, but especially to consistently sleep better.

Take an inventory of your stressors and think about ways to reduce each of them. Very often, the simple act of daily meditation won’t remove the stressor itself but it helps your mind cope with it. This alone can remove a significant barrier to sleep, especially if you are the type that tends to worry about things while lying in bed.

Natural Sleep Remedies—Magnolia Bark and Melatonin

Speaking of stress, I have another secret weapon that fights stress and promotes better sleep. Magnolia bark—as in, the bark of magnolia trees. It is rich in bioactive compounds that seek and destroy inflammation, toxins, and bacteria lurking in your body.

In addition, magnolia bark stimulates production of GABA, a neurotransmitter that soothes your excitatory neurons after they experience a stressful event or thought. This is critical because studies show that if you have inadequate GABA production, you are more prone to insomnia and other sleep problems.

Research also shows that one of magnolia bark’s compounds calms anxiety and aids sleep just as effectively as diazepams, the class of drugs commonly used to treat anxiety, but without side effects or risks of dependency.

Typically, 200 to 400 mg/day of magnolia bark is recommended for better sleep and reduced anxiety and stress. But it’s always wise to consult with your doctor before taking something new.

Melatonin is also great for improved sleep. It is naturally produced in your body for this very purpose. But we tend to produce less and less as we age. Plus, the sheer amount of bright lights and screens you are exposed to, particularly in the evening, impedes your body’s melatonin production.

Start by taking 1 mg of melatonin about 30-60 minutes before your preferred bedtime. If 1 mg doesn’t work for you after a day or two, you can gradually increase your dosage up to 3 mg.

Sleep Soundly Tonight, Steadily Every Night

If you read every journal article on sleep, it’s only natural that you begin worrying about too much sleep, too little sleep, and catching up sleep.

My approach is simple: Remove the worry (or worries) and you’ll find yourself sleeping better as soon as that night. On top of that, a healthy diet, exercise, and some sleep-specific supplements will ensure you sleep seven to eight hours nightly.


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