Don’t let poor sleep ruin your life

Why weekend lie-ins probably aren’t a good idea

Why weekend lie-ins probably aren’t a good idea

Is it good or bad to sleep in at the weekend?

During a long and busy week, with many ups and downs, it’s all too easy to get less sleep than you need. This isn’t ideal, given how important sleep is to overall health and wellbeing.

Many of us try to compensate for sleep lost during the working week by sleeping in and waking up later on weekends1.

This strategy is often coupled with staying up later on weekends in an attempt to make the most of our free time.

The approach may sound good in principle - since you’re attempting to make up for lost sleep time - but is sleeping in at the weekend a good or a bad thing?

Let’s take a closer look.

Setting your body clock to weekend mode

The first thing to understand is that sleep and sleepiness are regulated by a set of chemical and physical changes that repeat across an approximate 24 hour cycle for most people2. These can include:

  • Periodic changes in core body temperature. Which are associated with sleepiness and wakefulness3.
  • Fluctuations in concentrations of melatonin (a hormone linked to sleepiness). Which change periodically across a 24 hour period. A higher melatonin concentration will make you feel sleepier.
  • Variation in levels of human growth hormone. This hormone is vital for protein synthesis and body repair. Secretions can increase during periods of deep sleep4.

Any change that follows a daily rhythm (repeating over a 24 hour cycle) is said to be circadian from the Latin circa (“about”) and dies (“a day”). You can think of these changes as being cogs in the body’s clock 5. The key thing is that many of these circadian rhythms (or cogs) need to be in sync with the times when you sleep and wake for you to feel at your best.

Circadian rhythms can be influenced by environmental cues. Light is the most important synchroniser of circadian rhythms in humans and your body is able to sense light while your eyes are closed. When your body first senses light in the morning it prompts a number of physical and hormonal changes linked to the start of the new day which can reset and synchronise the various circadian rhythms.

Genetic factors also influence circadian rhythms and can affect whether you’re naturally a ‘morning lark’ or a ‘night owl’ 67.

Do you sleep like an Owl or a Lark

When we follow consistent sleep schedules (going to bed when we feel sleepy and getting up at the same time each morning e.g. for work on weekdays) most people will sleep and wake in line with their body’s circadian rhythms.

A good illustration of this is the act of waking up naturally at a time when the bodily concentrations of hormones that encourage wakefulness - like adrenocorticotropin and cortisol - are at their highest8. In this instance you’ll probably wake up feeling alert and ready for the day ahead because your body has prepared you for it.

Conversely, the best time to go to sleep is when melatonin and adenosine concentrations are raised in the body9. This will vary from person to person and also seasonally but it will usually be when you start to feel sleepy. Don’t ignore that signal.

Problems set in if you start waking up and going to sleep at times that aren’t in sync with your circadian rhythms (e.g. trying to sleep when cortisol levels are high or trying to wake up with elevated melatonin levels)67.

It’s unlikely that anyone outside a research setting does this intentionally but this is what happens after you stay up late at night and wake up later in the day (e.g. after a Friday evening out, or watching your favourite show late on a Saturday night).

It can also happen when going to bed and waking up earlier than usual.

What happens if you sleep in on weekends?

If you follow a different sleep schedule on weekends, compared to weekdays, then it’s very likely that you’ll be exposing yourself to light and dark at times when your body isn’t expecting it 10.

These changes in the timing of light and dark exposure force a reset of your circadian rhythms and your body starts to switch over to follow your ‘weekend’ schedule. If you’re going to bed later and getting up later it’s likely that:

  • Hormones like melatonin and adenosine, which increase the feeling of tiredness, increase in concentration later than usual at night.
  • Hormones like adrenocorticotropin and cortisol, which make you feel alert, increase in concentration later in the day.
  • Metabolic processes will also be shifted to the weekend schedule.

These changes wouldn’t be problematic if the shift to the ‘weekend’ sleep schedule was to be applied for the long-term.

However, they can become troublesome when you want your body to revert back to the ‘weekday’ sleep schedule when Monday comes around.

What happens then?

Dancing to the (wrong) circadian rhythm.

Dancing to the (wrong) circadian rhythm.

Most people who work Monday - Friday will go to bed earlier on Sunday nights compared to Friday and Saturday nights.

This is why Sunday nights tend to be the worst night for sleep. This is because all of the hormonal and physical signals that encourage sleep aren’t yet at their peak at the time you’re getting into bed, leading to difficulty in getting to sleep2.

When we lie in at the weekend, signals to wake up are also be delayed and this can produce that groggy Monday morning feeling. Those who regularly use the weekend to ‘catch up’ on lost sleep are less likely to start the week as fresh as they could have if they’d preserved their ‘weekday’ sleep schedule across the weekend.

There are several additional background processes (like those belonging to metabolism and organ function) which follow a circadian rhythm of their own but are linked to those belonging to sleep. This means that it’s important for them to be in sync with the circadian rhythms that influence your sleep if you’re to benefit from them fully.

This isn’t possible if your sleep and wake times are always changing.

Although the data is conflicting on how serious the implications of this are111213, it’s probably a good idea to maintain consistent sleep and wake times - even at the weekend.

Why is this? Let’s take a closer look.

Tug of war

Mental effects of a shifting sleep pattern

Reverting back to a ‘weekday’ pattern after following a ‘weekend’ sleep schedule has been associated with lower mood (greater feelings of tension, anxiety and worry101415) and reduced brain power? in the period shortly after waking, at the start of the working week10.

Research literature has shown that these impacts on cognitive performance lead to:

  • A slowing of mental arithmetic skills15
  • Reduced alertness1115.
  • Lowered ability to make mental connections (e.g. between words 10)

Naturally, these things may have negative implications for your relationships or your work over time.

Overweight from lack of sleep?

Physical effects of a shifting sleep pattern

Having lie-ins on weekends has also been shown to have a rather ironic effect. Instead of going into the following week fully rested, having ‘caught up’ on lost sleep, it seems that the shifts in circadian rhythms caused by weekend lie-ins actually increase feelings of daytime sleepiness!12 1617

This has been tied to the observation that those who have more irregular sleep patterns tend to need more sleep overall and are more prone to falling asleep spontaneously18.

So, if you’re finding that you’re tired through much of the week despite getting enough sleep, it might be worth considering making your bed and wake times more regular.

A more concerning observation is the link between shifts in ‘weekday’ and ‘weekend’ sleep and wake times and the risk of developing metabolic syndrome19 - a combination of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure20.

It isn’t clear whether this is down to disruptions in circadian rhythms or simply meal timing and diet fluctuations on account of changes in sleep. However, a similar observation has been made of shift workers who need to use their weekends to adjust to the following week’s shift pattern.

Curry food

What does this all mean?

We know that getting enough sleep is key to a long, happy and healthy life but we may not think about the importance of when we get that sleep. Ideally, it should be at the same time every day so that we’re always falling asleep and waking up at our best.

An added benefit of thinking a bit more closely about when you go to bed and wake up is that it may prompt you to think about other lifestyle choices that you’re making, such as your:

  • Alcohol and caffeine intake
  • Calorie intake
  • Time spent sitting
  • Exercise frequency and intensity21

However, if being more consistent with your bed and wake times comes at the expense of time spent asleep (e.g. if a late night leading to a lie-in is unavoidable or you work shifts) you shouldn’t restrict your sleep just to be more consistent in your sleep and wake times. In fact, if you’re sleeping in at the weekend as that’s the only way you can ensure that you’ll get enough sleep for your needs, then it might actually help you live longer122.

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In summary:

  • Human sleep is governed by a set of physical and chemical changes that repeat across an approximate 24 hour period in what are referred to as ‘circadian rhythms’.
  • For optimal sleep, your bed and wake times need to be synchronised to your circadian rhythms.
  • Staying up and waking up late at weekends causes a shift in these circadian rhythms.
  • This compromises sleep quality when you need to revert to an earlier bed and wake time for the week ahead.
  • It’s important to get enough sleep but, to get the most out of your sleep, make sure that you’re being consistent and getting up at about the same time each day and only getting into bed when you’re feeling sleepy.

Keeping a regular sleeping pattern can help improve your sleep but this alone may not be enough. If you‘re suffering from poor sleep and would like to join the thousands of people we have helped improve their sleep then click this link and see how Sleepstation can help you.

References


  • Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Impact of Sleep Debt on Metabolic and Endocrine Function. The Lancet. 1999 Oct;354(9188):1435–1439.

  • Taylor A, Wright HR, Lack LC. Sleeping-in on the Weekend Delays Circadian Phase and Increases Sleepiness the Following Week. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. 2008 Jul;6(3):172–179.

  • Harding EC, Franks NP, Wisden W. The Temperature Dependence of Sleep. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2019 Apr;13:336.

  • Van Cauter E, Copinschi G. Interrelationships between growthhormone and sleep. Growth Hormone & IGF Research. 2000 Apr 1;10:S57-62.

  • Xie Y, Tang Q, Chen G, Xie M, Yu S, Zhao J, Chen L. New insights into the circadian rhythm and its related diseases. Frontiers in physiology. 2019 Jun 25;10:682.

  • Taillard J, Philip P, Bioulac B. Morningness/eveningness and the need for sleep. Journal of sleep research. 1999 Dec;8(4):291-5.

  • Vink JM, Vink JM, Groot AS, Kerkhof GA, Boomsma DI. Genetic analysis of morningness and eveningness. Chronobiology international. 2001 Jan 1;18(5):809-22.

  • Born J, Hansen K, Marshall L, Mölle M, Fehm HL. Timing the End of Nocturnal Sleep. Nature. 1999 Jan;397(6714):29–30.

  • Arendt J, Skene DJ. Melatonin as a Chronobiotic. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2005 Feb;9(1):25–39.

  • Yang CM, Spielman AJ. The Effect of a Delayed Weekend Sleep Pattern on Sleep and Morning Functioning. Psychology & Health. 2001 Nov;16(6):715–725.

  • Bonnet MH, Alter J. Effects of Irregular versus Regular Sleep Schedules on Performance, Mood and Body Temperature. Biological Psychology. 1982 May;14(3-4):287–296.

  • Valdez P, Ramírez C, García A. Delaying and Extending Sleep During Weekends: Sleep Recovery or Circadian Effect? Chronobiology International. 1996 Jan;13(3):191–198.

  • Irish LA, Kline CE, Gunn HE, Buysse DJ, Hall MH. The Role of Sleep Hygiene in Promoting Public Health: A Review of Empirical Evidence. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2015 Aug;22:23–36.

  • Takasu NN, Takenaka Y, Fujiwara M, Toichi M. Effects of Regularizing Sleep-Wake Schedules on Daytime Autonomic Functions and Psychological States in Healthy University Students with Irregular Sleep-Wake Habits: Irregular vs. Regular Sleep-Wake Rhythm. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. 2012 Apr;10(2):84–93.

  • Taub JM, Berger RJ. Performance and Mood Following Variations in the Length and Timing of Sleep. Psychophysiology. 1973;10(6):559–570.

  • 2019 Sleep Health and Scheduling;. sleepfoundation.org/professionals-sleep-america-polls-2019-sleep-health-and-scheduling.

  • Kang JH, Chen SC. Effects of an Irregular Bedtime Schedule on Sleep Quality, Daytime Sleepiness, and Fatigue among University Students in Taiwan. BMC Public Health. 2009 Jul;9:248.

  • Manber R, Bootzin RR, Acebo C, Carskadon MA. The Effects of Regularizing Sleep-Wake Schedules on Daytime Sleepiness. Sleep. 1996 Jul;19(5):432–441.

  • Gaultney J. Weekend-Weeknight Shifts in Sleep Duration Predict Risk for Metabolic Syndrome. Journal of Behavioral Health. 2014;3(3):169.

  • Metabolic Syndrome; 19 Oct 2017, 12:49 p.m. nhs.uk/conditions/metabolic-syndrome/.

  • Duncan MJ, Kline CE, Rebar AL, Vandelanotte C, Short CE. Greater Bed- and Wake-Time Variability Is Associated with Less Healthy Lifestyle Behaviors: A Cross-Sectional Study. Zeitschrift fur Gesundheitswissenschaften = Journal of public health. 2016 Feb;24(1):31–40.

  • Åkerstedt T, Ghilotti F, Grotta A, Zhao H, Adami HO, Trolle-Lagerros Y, et al. Sleep Duration and Mortality – Does Weekend Sleep Matter? Journal of Sleep Research. 2019 Feb;28(1).

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