Sleep debt: can you make up lost sleep?

If you cut back on sleep during the week and sleep in on weekends to “catch up”, this article is for you.
Published May 26, 2021

We all know how essential sleep is for the human body, but getting enough sleep can be challenging for many people. It’s the norm these days to cut back on sleep during the week to accommodate busy lifestyles and sleep in on weekends to “catch up.” However, this seemingly normal pattern of sleeping is causing people to develop something known as sleep debt.

Sleep debt, also known as a sleep deficit is the difference between the number of hours of sleep you need and the amount you actually get. For example, let’s say you need to be getting 8 hours of sleep but you only get 5, you now have 3 hours of sleep debt. Sleep debt accumulates every time you miss out on sleep. Even missing 30 to 45 minutes of sleep every night adds up quickly.

Issues associated with being in sleep debt

There is a difference between being in sleep debt from one or two nights of lost sleep and being chronically sleep-deprived. There are plenty of studies that prove you can’t regularly skip out on sleep without consequences. Specifically, studies show that short-term sleep deprivation leads to conditions such as foggy brain, impaired memory and vision troubles. Long-term sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can have even more serious implications. This includes an increased risk of developing conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

It’s important to note that when someone has a lot of sleep debt, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are always tired. Research has shown that people may not feel tired even though their body is significantly declining in both its mental and physical performance. This can contribute to further debt accumulation.

The question remains, can we ever catch up on lost sleep? The good news is we can however, it will take longer than one sleep-in on the weekend.

Making up for lost sleep

Similar to monetary debt, sleep debt can eventually be paid off with the right strategy. Generally, the amount of sleep debt you have will determine how quickly you can catch up.

For example, if you have an occasional late-night or early morning, but typically have a healthy sleep routine you should be able to make up your sleep debt in a few days. However, if you are chronically missing out on hours of sleep every night it’s going to take more time to catch up. Research has shown that it can take up to 4 days to recover from 1 hour of lost sleep and up to nine to completely eliminate sleep debt.

Strategies for recovering from sleep debt

Recovering from occasional or short-term sleep debt requires making small adjustments to your sleep schedule and routine.

  1. Take a short 20-minute nap in the early afternoon: Set an alarm so you don’t sleep too long or too late in the day.
  2. Add an extra hour or two to your sleep for the next few nights.
  3. Sleep in on weekends, but only 2 hours past what you normally do. Sleeping in too late on the weekend can actually cause you to stay up later that same day and increase your sleep debt.
  4. Look for places to make adjustments to your sleep schedule to ensure sleep debt doesn’t become a long-term problem.
  5. Take it slow: remember it can still take a few days to recover from even a small amount of sleep debt.
Avoiding sleep debt

If you have long-term sleep debt, the above-mentioned strategies might not be enough for you to recover. The best way to recover from sleep debt is to develop a healthier sleep routine that in turn helps you avoid sleep debt in the future.

Strategies for starting a healthy sleep routine:

  • Keep bedtime and waketime fairly stable across the weekend.
  • Start a sleep schedule: Establish a time you want to go to sleep and wake. You can start slowly changing your schedule by 30 - 60 minute increments until you find what works best for you.
  • Develop a nighttime routine: This can help you get to bed at a better time and also help prepare your body for sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed
  • Take short afternoon naps: This can be helpful for shift workers and people who can’t maintain a consistent sleep schedule because of their lifestyle.
  • Be patient: Remember it can take many days to adjust to a new sleep schedule.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have problems falling or staying asleep. They can help rule out sleep disorders and make other lifestyle suggestions.

Overall, it’s important to remember just how crucial sleep is to the human body. While we live in a busy world that praises hard work and long hours, we can’t forget that our bodies need sleep. Sleep deprivation, even just during the workweek can have long-term effects on our bodies. The good news is sleep debt can be repaid and even avoided entirely with a healthy sleep routine.