We all do it from time to time. Sleep in on days off. Pull an all-nighter, then head to work after just a few hours’ sleep. Catch an afternoon nap to make up for lost shut-eye. Load up on coffee or soda to fight drowsiness.
But if these patterns become habitual, they could be a sign of more serious problems and/or put your health at risk, experts say.
“Sleep quality and duration should be considered a vital sign, as they are strong indicators of overall health and quality of life,” says Kristen Knutson, with the National Sleep Foundation.
“Extremely long or short sleep durations are associated with more specific [health] conditions. “Understanding the importance of sleep and taking a proactive approach to bed times can help everyone improve their sleep … Taking control of your sleep is an important step in taking control of your health.
A new study by the NSF found that many Americans suffer with sleep deprivation. In addition, the survey shows those who in excellent health report sleeping 18 to 23 minutes longer each night on average than those who rate their health as just good, fair, or poor.
Here are four sleep patterns that can be problematic.
No. 1: Catching up for lost sleep on the weekend.
Occasionally sleeping in on a Saturday or Sunday is not necessarily a problem. But if it becomes a weekly pattern, it could be a sign of an underlying health problem.
Sleep experts advise most people to get between seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and to get up and go to sleep around the same time each day. That pattern allows our bodies and brains to stay healthy, keeps our immune systems in tip-top shape, and helps keep many ailments and illnesses at bay.
But studies show up to half of Americans sleep less than seven hours during the week, and many compensate by sleeping in at the weekend or napping during the day. But this pattern can lead to disruption of normal cycles of slumber — so-called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and slow-wave sleep (Non-REM sleep) that alternate in approximately 90-minute cycles.
“An all-nighter is not a good idea,” notes David Brownstein, M.D., a board-certified family physician and editor of The Natural Way to Health newsletter. “The body needs rest on a daily basis.”
No. 2: Excessive napping.
Many studies have shown afternoon catnaps can improve alertness, job performance, and mood. Russell Blaylock, M.D., a renowned neurosurgeon and editor of the Blaylock Wellness Report, believes sneaking in a few “micro-naps” during the day can fill in the gaps in slumber.
“Yes, one can catch up on sleep,” he notes. “As an intern and resident I lost a lot of sleep — also over the next 24 years of taking [patient calls]. I learned to take micro-naps — just close my eyes for a few seconds and let my mind drift. You can do this hundreds of times a day and it mounts up.”
But it is possible to get too much of a good thing. The U.S. National Sleep Foundation recommends naps of up to 30 minutes — no longer. Studies have shown individuals who nap every day could be doing so because of something more serious that warrants a doctor’s attention — including depression, obstructive sleep apnea, stroke, heart disease, or even certain forms of cancer.
No. 3: Sleeping late every day.
Late sleepers who make it a habit of getting more than nine hours a night may be doing themselves more harm than good. Numerous studies have shown getting too much sleep may be at increased risk for cardiovascular problems, stroke, and cancer.
Experts believe extra sleep is not a cause, but a symptom, of such conditions. Chronic fatigue that keeps some people in bed for long periods of time may be a consequence of an underlying health condition.
No. 4: Inability to fall, or stay asleep.
Job stress. Financial problems. Family struggles. All can keep you from falling asleep easily or cause you to awaken in the night — at least occasionally.
But if these issues become a nightly challenge, they might be due to a more serious underlying condition — including anxiety, depression, obstructive sleep apnea, or chronic insomnia — that might require attention from a medical professional.
There’s also plenty of scientific evidence linking sleep problems to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, and even the common cold.
If you suffer from a sleep problem, some simple changes to your lifestyle, may help: Follow regular sleeping patterns. Aim to be in bed the same number of hours each night.
Embrace the darkness. Keep your bedroom as dark as possible and avoid watching TV or using a smart phone or tablet in bed. Studies show artificial light close to bedtime can interfere with sleep-related hormones, such as melatonin.
Have dinner earlier. Eating sooner or having a light meal in the evening will help you sleep better.
Exercise no fewer than four hours before bedtime. Hormones released during exercise give us renewed energy that may disrupt sleep.
Take natural supplements. Valerian root, chamomile flower, magnesium, calcium, chamomile tea, and zinc can help you relax, fall asleep, and stay asleep.