Sleep Debt: Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 30% of working adults receive less than six hours of sleep each night on average. This amount is well below expert guidelines, which recommend that adults obtain between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.

You may be able to make up for an all-nighter with a power nap or a weekend sleep-in, but those who regularly go short on sleep can rack up a sleep debt that's more difficult to recover from. Understanding how to catch up on sleep is the first step toward feeling better.

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt refers to the sum of all the hours of sleep you've missed. For example, if you fall one hour short of the amount of sleep you require each night from Monday through Friday, you'll arrive at the weekend with five hours of sleep debt.

Sleep debt accumulates over time. The less sleep you receive, and the more days you go short on sleep, the greater the negative effects. Many people intuitively realize this, which is why we end up sleeping in on days off to make up for lost sleep.

What are the Consequences of Sleep Debt?

Sleep deprivation can negatively affect learning, memory, alertness, mood and creativity, and the immune system. It also puts us at risk for drowsy driving accidents. Going short on sleep also makes us more likely to reach for high-calorie snacks and eat later in the day, raising the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease later in life.

Does Sleeping In on Weekends Help Reduce Sleep Debt?

It is possible to catch up on sleep by receiving recovery sleep. During recovery sleep, most people show an increased proportion of slow wave sleep that is thought to help compensate for previous sleep loss.

Sleeping in on the weekend may help improve insulin sensitivity, fat metabolism, body weight, stress levels, daytime sleepiness, fatigue, alertness, and performance. One study that tracked the sleeping patterns of people over 13 years found that catching up on sleep by sleeping in on the weekend cancelled out the risk of early death.

The caveat is that many of the benefits of catch-up sleep are only achieved after multiple nights or weeks of catching up on sleep. One study found that participants needed an average of four days to recover from just one hour of sleep debt, and another study found that teenagers didn't recover from sleep deprivation until two weeks into the school holidays. The time required to benefit from catch-up sleep might explain why another study found that one weekend of catch-up sleep failed to show benefits for weight gain or insulin resistance.

The size of your sleep debt determines how long it takes you to catch up on sleep. Many people accumulate such a large sleep debt during the week that they would practically have to sleep all weekend to pay it back. When we fail to fully make up our sleep debt over the weekend, it carries over into the next workweek.

Interestingly, many people report feeling completely fine after a weekend of catching up on sleep, even though their bodies show markers of increased stress. Researchers suggest that the lack of discomfort we feel after receiving catch-up sleep might explain why we keep relying on this age-old method despite its drawbacks.

How Does Sleeping In Affect the Sleep Cycle?

Our bodies perform best when we follow a consistent schedule, waking up and going to sleep at approximately the same time every day. Sleeping in on weekends can disrupt this rhythm.

If you sleep in on Saturday and Sunday, you might find yourself unable to fall asleep by your bedtime when Sunday night rolls around. Staying up late can make it difficult to wake up for your 7 a.m. alarm on Monday. As far as your body is concerned, you're forcing it to wake up in the middle of the night.

Napping may provide an alternative to sleeping in on weekends that allows you to catch up on lost sleep without the drastic effects on your sleep-wake cycle.

Does Napping Help Reduce Sleep Debt?

Napping has benefits for short-term attention, sleepiness, job performance, the immune system, stress levels, and the pain threshold. Longer naps might even undo some of the damage to muscles and cells that occurs when we go without sleep.

It's best to keep naps earlier in the day, especially if you have trouble falling asleep at night. As for how long you need to nap to see benefits, most research suggests that a 10- to 30-minute nap is optimal for improving sleepiness and mental sharpness. Longer naps may provide more lasting benefits, but people tend to be groggier on waking up.

What's the Best Way to Avoid Sleep Debt?

Adopting healthy sleep habits and obtaining a consistent, adequate amount of sleep each night is more beneficial than relying on naps or weekend sleep-ins. However, for shift workers or others who aren't able to sleep the required amount, trying tips for sleep debt recovery or taking the occasional sleep vacation might go a long way toward helping them feel more rested.

Tips for Catching up on Sleep

If you've accrued sleep debt, getting back to a healthy sleep schedule may require some time and effort. There are some measures you can take to recover from sleep debt. These include the following:

  • Establish a Consistent Sleep Schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same times each day is fundamental to healthy sleep hygiene, and this step is particularly helpful for those who struggle with sleep debt. The key is to follow the same routine during the week and on weekends, so you may need to catch up with a weekend sleep-in or two before adopting a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Keep a Sleep Diary: When you wake up each morning, take a moment to jot down the number of hours you've slept. This can help you keep track of how much sleep you're getting compared to how much sleep you need, which is needed to calculate sleep debt. Also take note of evening meals, pre-bedtime activities, your bedroom temperature, and other factors relating to your previous night's rest. This can help you nail down aspects of your nightly regimen that promote good sleep.
  • Optimize Your Sleep Space: The area where you sleep should be cool, quiet, and dark. If you're catching up on sleep during the day, you may need to invest in bedroom accessories to make your sleep space more relaxing. These include blackout curtains or an eye mask to simulate darkness, and a white noise machine or earplugs to block outside noises.
  • Relax Before Bed: People often get less sleep than they need due to overly stimulating activities before bed. These include vigorously exercising, consuming caffeine or heavy meals, and using electronic devices that emit blue light and interfere with circadian rhythms. Meditation, yoga, and other relaxing activities can help you unwind and prepare for sleep. Some people also find taking a hot shower or bath before bed helps them unwind and sleep better. Exposure to warm water promotes sleepiness through passive body heating because it expedites the decrease in body temperature that naturally occurs prior to and during sleep.
  • Talk to a Doctor Before Taking Medication: Sleeping pills may be tempting to people with heavy sleep debt, but you should never consume any prescription or over-the-counter medication without approval from a certified physician. For some people, sleep medications worsen – rather than improve – daytime sleepiness and fatigue. These medications may have other intended consequences, such as exacerbating obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep-disordered breathing conditions. You should also talk to your doctor before taking medications that promote wakefulness such as modafinil, which is the only medication to receive FDA approval for treating shift work sleep disorder.

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