Trying to catch up on Zs can lead to chronic insomnia, researchers say.

By Amanda Gardner
Updated June 16, 2016

When you have the occasional sleepless night, do you try to compensate by sleeping late the next morning—​or squeezing in a siesta? If so, you could be setting yourself up for long-term problems.

According to new research being presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Denver, people who manage to go on with their regular lives after a fitful night will likely recover some form of normal sleep. Those who linger in bed or take naps are more likely to develop chronic insomnia.

"Stay the course and the sleep problem will right itself, [and] likely in three to five days’ time," says study lead author Michael Perlis, PhD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Insomnia has become an epidemic in the United States. At one point or another, practically everyone experiences acute insomnia—​defined as trouble falling asleep or staying that way for three or more nights a week for two weeks to three months. A smaller percentage develop chronic insomnia, sleep problems lasting more than three months. Insomnia has been linked to a higher risk for depression, drug abuse, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The question concerning researchers, says Perlis, has been "How does the one group recover, and the other group go chronic?"

A prevailing theory is that those who manage to go on with their normal schedules despite feeling sleep deprived will get better, while those that try to compensate will get worse. For decades, though, the theory has been largely that: just a theory.

"Looking at the ebb and flow of insomnia across time is a little-studied area, specifically this area which is the transition from acute to chronic insomnia," says Timothy Roehrs, PhD, director of research at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Anecdotal information from patients, though, has indicated that "one of the compensatory mechanisms they use to cope is more time in bed," adds Roehrs.

For this study, 416 "good sleepers" kept sleep diaries recording how much time they spent in bed over six months. At the end of the study period, time spent in bed did correlate with who developed insomnia and for how long, supporting the long-standing hypothesis.

The caveat is that only a very small number of participants developed chronic insomnia. About 20% of the group had acute insomnia at some point during the study. Almost half of those people returned to normal; slightly under half still had insomnia but not terrible insomnia; and about 7% developed chronic insomnia.

"At this point, it's a very small sample," says Roehrs. "This is all very, very preliminary and should be taken as very preliminary."

But Perlis hopes the findings will help more people avoid the agony that is chronic insomnia: "Up to 100% of the population will experience short-term sleeplessness or acute insomnia within two years’ time," he says. "It literally happens to us all, and is probably normal.... The trick is to keep normal from becoming abnormal."