There’s nothing better than sleeping in on the weekend after a long, hard week of getting up at the crack of dawn for work. But you might also feel a bit groggy – despite having had a long night’s sleep.
It can be tempting to stay in bed for as long as possible whenever you can, but unfortunately this isn’t always the best thing for you. You might think you’re ‘catching up’ on some shut-eye, but you could be causing your body unforeseen damage.
We spoke to Dr Olga Runcie, consultant psychiatrist and sleep specialist at BMI The Albyn Hospital in Aberdeen to get to the bottom of why you really should be going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, all week long. Yes – even on the weekends.
Our bodies all function on a set rhythm, called the circadian clock.
This means certain processes happen at particular times, and your hormones and enzymes are programmed to peak at set times.
“Every cell in our body has a molecular clock, which is controlled by a brain master clock,” Runcie explains.
“Cells in our body do different jobs depending on this internal circadian time.
“So if we start sleeping on a very irregular schedule, our body will be very confused about what kind of jobs to do when.”
It’s all very well and good to say your body will be thrown off, but what does this actually mean? “During the night our body starts building up lots of big molecules like cholesterol and proteins for us to use during the day – it’s kind of like an energy dispenser,” Runcie says.
“It’s all built overnight – it’s like the body is working the night shift to prepare for the day shift.”
"The brain ‘master clock’ controls the smaller cellular clocks making sure processes like this are ticking over properly, she says.
If you push forward the time you go to sleep and wake up, it can really affect you physically.
“It’s called social jet lag – people can feel jet lagged without travelling across the world,” Runcie explains.
“The body gets confused, so it isn’t able to function to the same capacity as people who keep a regular rhythm, so all cellular functions will be slightly off.”
So how does this actually make you feel? Well, it really is like experiencing bad jet lag. Runcie says: “On a more personal level, people can feel stomach discomfort, nausea, fatigue, a lack of energy and their mood can be irritable.”
Perhaps most troubling is the hit your immune system can take.
If you’re not following a regular sleeping pattern, you might be more prone to catching a common cold.
Runcie says this is “because our immune system recharges at certain times of the day, so when you don’t follow a good rhythm these kinds of functions will be happening very sporadically – and that can affect your physical and mental health”.
There’s definitely a modern obsession with sleep.
Almost everywhere you look are the so-called ‘perfect’ rules for sleep, dictating when you should go to bed and how many hours of shut-eye you should get.
However, Runcie wants us to ignore these guidelines. “It’s a really good idea to sleep at the same time and keep this synchronicity going, but this time can be very, very different for each individual,” she stresses. “Some people are night owls, which in medical jargon is called a late chronotype and others are larks, which is an early chronotype.”
Which category you fall into is completely down to how your body functions and how your internal clock is set up.
“What mistake people make is thinking they have to go to bed at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, but they aren’t able to sleep because it’s not their preferable window,” Runcie says. “This rhythm is essential, but it’s very individual. You need to find out your rhythm, and keep that rhythm.
” There is a grace period – but Runcie says that it’s only a 30 to 40 minute shift our body can adjust to.
Another thing that varies is how quickly you can recover from an irregular sleeping pattern.
She says: “It really depends on your genes, your general health, your age. Younger people are more flexible and have a faster recovery pace, but people aged 40 or above will find it harder to adapt to circadian shifts.”
Despite the headlines, how much sleep a person should get totally varies.
“The papers might say the average sleep time is about eight hours, and when people read that they can get very anxious if they don’t fit into the average number,” Runcie says.
“But the duration of sleep can be anything between six and ten hours – some people are long sleepers.”
- Press Association