Do you find that you function throughout the week, but come Saturday you could happily sleep all day? Asking yourself Why am I so tired? If you’re caught in this perpetual cycle, it can be pretty depressing; you shouldn’t be knackering yourself out at work so much that you can’t make the most of your downtime. What kind of work/life balance is that? An occasional nap is one thing, but feeling so tired you can’t face socialising is quite another. So what’s the answer? To find out why many of us could sleep all weekend, we called on sleep expert Neil Stanley, MD, and our resident doctor, Jane Leonard, MD, for their insights on why we’re so tired come Saturday. Keep scrolling to find out how to zap some much-needed energy into your weekends.
Social Jet lag: How it's Wrecking Your Health
It appears this excessive tiredness at the weekend comes down to social jet lag, a feeling of sleepiness akin to travelling from one time zone to another but caused entirely by our lifestyles—we battle through early mornings and late nights Monday to Friday, only to crash and burn come Saturday.
“At the weekend, you convince yourself you don’t need to get up, so it doesn’t matter whether you lay in bed. But you’re fooling yourself that you’re catching up on missed sleep—you’re not,” says Stanley. “You can’t make up the missed sleep that easy. You can sleep a lot, but doesn’t mean it’s good quality,” he adds.
In fact, according to a new study published in Sleep, it can be downright dangerous. University of Arizona researcher Sierra Forbush and her team analysed the sleep patterns of 984 adults, and they found that those who experience an hour of social jet lag—going to bed at midnight and waking at 8 a.m. at weekends, and 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays—saw an 11% increase in the likelihood of having cardiovascular disease. It was also linked to worse mood and increased fatigue.
So why does this “social jet lag” occur? “People think they can work hard and play hard,” says Stanley. “Not so long ago, pubs closed at 10:30 p.m. and shops shut at 5 p.m., but nowadays we have a lot to distract ourselves from sleep—like Netflix binges, for example—and that compresses our sleep time.”
So how do we get more sleep during the week?
“You need to make time for sleep,” says Stanley. “Getting good sleep is a choice; you need to decide whether you want to watch back-to-back that latest blockbuster TV series or get a good night’s sleep. You need to prioritise sleep. Why would you want to waste a day asleep? It seems crazy; you’re not gaining any more time by staying up late in the week, you’re just cutting into your weekends.”
You may argue that you have trouble falling asleep, but Stanley counters with, “most people don’t have insomnia, they just have a lifestyle, and they’re not willing to change it.” One study found that 49% of females age 18 to 24 valued sleep the least, in preference to their digital devices. So how do you fall asleep during the week? Turns out it needs to be a conscious decision to go to bed.
My colleague, Hannah McGhee, has a bag with all of her nighttime essentials—a sleep mask, mist, hand cream and a book—and she sets a recurring nightly alarm each night to signal that it’s time to turn off all her devices, pull out her bag and start the process of winding down for bed. And it’s a doctor-approved method.
“Try to get yourself into a bedtime routine. This is basically wind-down time, so your mind and body start to gradually relax before you put your head on the pillow,” explains Jane Leonard. She also advises magnesium, which comes in a body spray and can help you sleep at night. “Herbal teas that aid digestion like peppermint may also make you sleep more comfortably, as anxiety and stress can cause digestion problems and increase symptoms of acid reflux,” she adds.
How much sleep do you need?
“Sleep need is like height,” says Stanley. “It’s genetically determined and can vary between three and 11 hours. Most of us are between seven and nine hours.” So how do you know when you’ve had enough sleep? Stanley is sceptical of sleep trackers or diaries: “If you start focusing on your sleep, you start worrying about your sleep, hence you get even worse sleep. Instead, during the day ask yourself how you feel? Do you feel awake, alert and focused on your tasks? If you’re at all sleepy during the day, then you haven’t had enough sleep.
“I recently asked a room full of people on a scale of one to 10—one being if I stopped talking you’d instantly fall asleep and 10 the most awake you’ve ever been—[how much sleep they’ve been getting, and] a lot of people said six or seven, and that they felt a bit jaded. Why would you go through life felling a bit meh? Feeling like come Friday you need wine? You should fell great and focused every day,” adds Stanley.
And what’s most bizarre is that the people with some of the worst sleep hygiene tend to be those with—on paper—the healthiest lifestyles. “They are eating organic and going to the gym, but bizarrely they’re not making time for sleep,” Stanley tells us. At the end of the day, it comes down to a desire to prioritise sleep, realizing that it’s a key part of the wellness puzzle. As Stanley quite rightly states, “Unless you’re willing to switch off the TV or mobile or laptop, it doesn’t really matter how much sleep you need—that willingness needs to be there.”
Next up: how to fall asleep in under a minute.