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Experts say going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help you achieve quality sleep. Tim Kitchen/Getty Images
  • Researchers say about one-third of adults in the United States report sleeping difficulties.
  • Experts say a lack of quality sleep can cause an array of health issues.
  • They add that it is difficult to “catch up” on sleep over a weekend.
  • Experts say there are simple ways to get better rest, including going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day as well as limiting caffeine, alcohol, and electronic screens before bedtime.

Daytime fatigue and nighttime sleep disturbances are common to an estimated 3 in 10 adults in the United States.

That’s according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.

In it, researchers examined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2017-2020). The survey included a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 adults aged 20 years and older.

The researchers reported that:

  • Many adults play the game of sleep “catch-up” on days off from work. This means they may sleep in later than on workdays.
  • More than 30% have what’s known as chronic sleep debt, defined as the difference between sleep duration on days off work compared to working days. This is due in part to staying up later on average on weekend nights.
  • A high percentage of adults experience chronic sleep deprivation.
  • These adults are also experiencing social jet lag (ie., the midpoint between when you fall asleep and wake up on working and non-working days).

Study limitations included self-reporting on sleep and wake times, which may not always be an accurate measurement of sleep patterns and sleeping habits, and the assumption people are only working 5 days a week.

Experts say Americans are not getting enough sleep and are feeling sleepy during the day.

Emerson Wickwire, PhD, a sleep medicine expert at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a professor and section head of Sleep Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, tells Healthline this is the biggest takeaway from this study.

“Sleep is like a nutrient for the body and brain,” he said. “Obtaining adequate sleep is vital for a healthy body and calm mind.”

Wickwire adds that some sleepless nights are normal and to be expected.

“Everyone experiences busy periods with less sleep. This is a normal part of life,” he said.

However, chronic poor sleep is a known risk factor for sleep disorders, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Shelby Harris, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in sleep health and the director of sleep health at Sleepopolis, says while “the study does have its limitations (e.g. self-reporting, only surveyed people with standard 5-day workweek schedules), it does highlight the importance of just how sleep-deprived our society is.”

“We are sleep deprived so many of the days, especially on work nights, that we are constantly playing a game of catch-up to try and be at our best; and catch-up comes at the cost of inconsistent sleep patterns,” she explained.

“Inconsistency with sleep patterns can lead to a growing sleep debt (even with the catch-up days) and also issues like social jet lag and insomnia (especially Sunday night insomnia),” says Harris.

Also, she says since the data was collected from 2017-2020, it would be interesting to see how things may have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic with more people working from home.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine surveyed 2,006 adults in the United States during the pandemic and found more than half reported increases in sleep disturbances, sometimes now referred to as “COVID-somnia.”

Along with getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, experts say the key to good sleep is consistency.

“Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is important to maintain your circadian rhythm and help you get better quality rest at night,” says Harris.

“The word ‘circadian’ comes from the Latin circa dia, or ‘about a day,’” says Wickwire.

“Each day, approximately every 24.2 hours for adult humans, our internal body clock rotates through sleep and wakefulness,” he says. “Even minor disruptions in our circadian rhythms can increase the risk for poor health outcomes, as well as costly accidents and errors.”

This means that even sleeping in can cause some problems. This is why trying to catch up on sleep is a losing game.

“The fact is that we simply don’t know how long it takes to catch up on lost sleep,” says Wickwire.

He adds that research over the past two decades suggests that even “long weekends” of three days are not enough to make up for lost sleep. For example, according to a study from 2016, it actually takes four days of consistent and proper sleep to fully recover from one hour of lost sleep.

“Try to avoid compensating for a bad night of sleep by sleeping in too late the next morning or going to bed too early the next night,” suggests Harris.

“It’s best to keep as consistent a bed/wake time as possible, and don’t extend your wake time more than 90 minutes, if necessary,” she adds.

First, experts say, consider what is really in your way of a healthy sleep schedule.

“Procrastinating sleep so you can do other things, staying up later to maximize free time on the weekends, and finally, having time for yourself are common reasons that people don’t make time for sleep,” explains Harris.

Harris’ tips for improving sleeping habits and sleep hygiene:

  • Consider using a timer to help remind you when to start getting ready for bed.
  • Try to limit alcohol 3 hours before bed.
  • Limit caffeine 8 hours before bed.
  • Limit screens 30 to 60 minutes before bed

“If that’s not enough and you still struggle with sleep quantity and quality, talk with a sleep specialist as there are many effective non-medication and medication treatments out there,” she says.