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Sleep Debt: Is It Really Possible To “Catch Up” On Missed Sleep?

Hayley Dawes
3 January 2023

As the nights get longer this winter, two sleep experts break down the concept of “sleep debt” and how to overcome it.

It gets us wondering: is it really possible to “catch up” on sleep? Is a chilled evening or long weekend of R&R really going to make a difference to my frazzled sleep cycle?

Sleep isn’t like a bank account where you can save up and then spend it later,” Dr Lindsay Browning, a sleep expert. “Although you can catch up somewhat and feel better after a weekend lie in or a nap, it is likely that you will need several days and a lot of sleep to fully catch up, and that your weekend lie in probably won’t be enough sleep to fully catch up.”

What Is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt, also known as sleep deficit, is the difference between how much sleep you need and how much you actually get. When you sleep fewer hours than your body needs, you have a sleep debt. For instance, if you get four hours of sleep when you should be getting eight, you’ll have a sleep debt of four hours. If you do this for the next week, you’ll end up with a sleep debt of 28 hours. Accordingly, you should watch your late-night habits and make sure you’re not missing sleep by commuting, relaxing, working, studying, or watching shows.

Dr Browning explains that many people don’t get enough sleep during the working week resulting in a ‘sleep debt’. “If you need 8 hours sleep, but you only get 6 hours sleep during the working week due to your job and other commitments, after a few days you can have built up a significant sleep debt,” she says. “When we have a sleep debt, we are likely to feel low, tired and our daytime functioning can be affected.” 

That certainly rings true. While I’ve been making sure to juggle a busy work and social schedule with getting as close to eight hours sleep a night as it allows, it never quite feels like enough.

Consequences of Sleep Debt

Sleep debt adds up over time and can negatively impact your health. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a typical adult should get between 7-9 hours sleep per day for best health benefits. Ideally this should be every night, rather than made up of 5-6 hours sleep some nights and 10-11 hours other nights, Dr Browning adds.

“Banking” sleep, aka getting in extra rest before a busy period starts so that you can rely on some of the sleep you have ‘banked’, isn’t a great idea, either.

“We shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to sleep, so if you’re already well-rested then staying in bed for a couple of extra hours just to prepare is probably not going to do you any favours at all,” Dr Sophie Bostock.

If you don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, you might:

  • Feel tired throughout the day
  • Lose your ability to remain focused and efficient during the day
  • Weaken your immune system
  • Make it more difficult for your brain to process and store new information

However, you may not always feel tired if you have a sleep debt. Research has shown that you can adapt to chronic sleep restriction. This means that even if you don’t feel sleepy, your body may already have significant declines in mental and physical performance.

How To Recover from Sleep Debt 

When losing sleep sometimes is unavoidable due to life circumstances, you should make up for lost sleep by taking naps, sleeping more on the weekends, and most importantly, reconsidering your relationship with sleep: 

Taking naps

Try and take a 10–20-minute nap. This will help you feel more refreshed and capable of taking on various tasks throughout the day. Naps can help you relieve sleepiness and make you more energetic, but they shouldn’t interfere with your sleeping schedule.

Weekend rest

This isn’t to say that you should forgo any weekend rest. Dr Browning says there are many benefits to a nap or extra sleep at the weekend, and that they can help you to feel better and improve things like your mood and reaction times.

“Although a weekend lie-in can help, research suggests that you can never fully catch up on lost sleep,” she adds. “When you regularly don’t get enough sleep it affects your health, such as increasing your risk of a heart disease or stroke, diabetes, reduces your immune function and affects your weight. Some of these risks simply can’t be immediately overcome by catching up on sleep at the weekend. Further study suggests that it can take at least four days to recover from only one hour of sleep debt.”

Reconsider your relationship with sleep

Instead of thinking of sleep as another chore, think of it as preventative medicine. Remember, sleep can reduce illness and boost your health. You should start seeing sleep as a vital part of your life and overall well-being. 

What To Do If You Keep Missing Out on Sleep?

Try as we might, there sometimes just doesn’t feel like enough hours in the day to get all the downtime we know we need. So, if you do miss out on sleep due to something like weekday work commitments, Dr Browning says it’s a good idea to try and rectify your sleeping pattern as soon as possible.

“Wake at the same time every day, use light exposure, get exercise, socialise and do the things you enjoy and then go to bed when you are sleepy and tired,” adds Stephanie Romiszewski, sleep physiologist and director at Sleepyhead Clinic. Romiszewski also wants of the negative impact of ‘forcing’ yourself to sleep. 

“Forcing yourself to sleep can actually make you feel worse and anxious, and lead to inconsistent sleep schedules which is confusing for your body,” she says. “By forcing your body to things, it is not ready for will usually increase our negative feelings and fears about not sleeping, keeping us up for longer.”

How To Avoid Sleep Debt

To avoid the consequences of sleep debt, you need to learn how much sleep your body needs and improve your sleep hygiene: 

Find out how much sleep you need

The first step to avoiding sleep debt is to learn how much sleep you need. This varies from person to person. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, while teens and children need even more sleep.  

Reconsider your daytime schedule

See if there’s anything you do during the day that may contribute to your lack of sleep. Try to avoid caffeine after sunset and get more exercise during the day so you’re tired enough to get quality sleep.

Keep a sleep diary

Keep a diary or notebook where you can set a sleep schedule. This will allow you to prioritise sleep and make sure you’re getting the rest you need. If you want to change your sleep schedule, you should do it slowly through 30-minute or 60-minute increments. 

Make your bedroom more sleep-friendly

Get rid of sources of distraction, such as objects that make noises or lights that can keep you awake. Replace your sheets, pillow, or mattress if they’re uncomfortable.

Develop a night-time routine

Think about what relaxed you before you go to sleep so you can get quality rest. For example, you can turn off your electronics, stop studying or working, and dim the lights half an hour before you go to sleep.