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Sleep Debt and Catching up on Sleep

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Rob Newsom

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Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Anis Rehman

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Sleep is an essential part of overall health. Getting enough sleep offers a plethora of benefits, like feeling more energized during the day, improving immune function, and aiding the brain in processing and storing new information.

For many people, getting enough sleep can be a challenge. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), almost one-third of Americans get less than six hours of sleep. Losing sleep is even more common in people who work in the medical field or other shift work jobs.

Not getting enough sleep can have serious consequences and interfere with work, school, and driving. Sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis increases the risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Sleep deprivation is also linked to reduced immune function, metabolic dysregulation and weight gain, and a greater risk of falls and accidents. Prolonged sleep deprivation also affects memory and cognitive functions.

Since being chronically underslept can have such serious consequences, it’s natural to want to know how to recover from lost sleep. The good news is, by taking the right steps, people can recover and regain the benefits of sufficient, quality rest.

What Is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt, also called a sleep deficit, is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they actually get. For example, if your body needs eight hours of sleep per night, but only get six- you have two hours of sleep debt.

Since sleep debt is cumulative, going to sleep 30 or 60 minutes later than usual for a few days can quickly add up. The most common activities that cause Americans to miss sleep are work hours, commuting, socializing, relaxing, and watching TV.

Accumulating sleep debt doesn’t always mean that we feel tired. Research has demonstrated that people can cognitively adapt to chronic sleep restriction, not feeling particularly sleepy even though their body is showing significant declines in physical and mental performance.

Avoiding Sleep Debt

The easiest way to avoid the consequences of lost sleep is to avoid accumulating sleep debt in the first place. Learn how much sleep your body needs and prioritize sleep as one of the most important ways to care for your body.

While the amount of sleep, people need can vary from person to person, most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night according to guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation. Children and teenagers need even more sleep to support their bodies as they grow and develop.

It may seem like sacrificing a little sleep to study or work a few more hours helps you get more done, but remember that getting sufficient sleep improves cognitive performance and allows you to be more focused and efficient during the day. Here are a few more ideas for improving your sleep hygiene to reduce the chances of accumulating sleep debt:

    • Keep a set sleep schedule: Maintaining a set sleep schedule allows you to prioritize sleep and make sure you’re getting sufficient rest. If you need to change your sleep schedule, do it slowly by changing it in 30- to 60-minute increments.
    • Develop a nightly routine: Having a nightly routine allows your body to relax and prepare for quality sleep. Set an alarm for 30 minutes to an hour before bed to remind you to dim the lights, turn off electronics, and find a relaxing activity.
    • Consider daytime habits: If you’re chronically underslept, rethink any daytime activities that may be contributing to sleep issues. Make sure you’re getting enough daylight and exercise during the day, not drinking caffeine too close to bedtime, and restricting activities in your bed to just sleep and sex. Limiting screen time prior to sleeping may also help reduce sleep issues.
    • Improve the bedroom environment: Optimize your bedroom environment for sleep. Keep the temperature comfortable for sleeping (around 65°F), block out any lights or noises that might keep you awake, and consider replacing your mattress, pillow, or sheets if they’re getting older or uncomfortable.

    Sometimes losing sleep is unavoidable. Whether it’s due to a demanding work schedule or a late night with family or friends, it’s important to have a plan for recovering from lost sleep. Fortunately, with a little patience and consistency, people can recover from sleep debt and regain the benefits of being well slept.

    Recovering From Sleep Debt

    Taking a nap is often the first thing that comes to mind when we’re underslept, and for good reason. A brief, 10 to 20 minute nap may help you feel more refreshed during the day. A mid-afternoon nap can increase working memory, learning, and mental acuity for a few hours.

    Sleeping in on the weekends to catch up on sleep is another common approach. Unfortunately, it’s not clear if sleeping in actually compensates for sleep debt or if it simply represents a return to our normal sleep patterns. One study found that sleeping in on weekends doesn’t reverse the metabolic dysregulation and potential weight gain associated with regular sleep loss.

    A concern with both napping and sleeping in on weekends is that, when you’re underslept, a little extra rest can offer a false sense of recovery. You may feel better for a little while after getting extra sleep, but the snowballing effects of sleep loss is a debt that takes longer to repay.

    While sleeping in for a morning or two may help, it’s often not enough. Research has shown that it can take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt. A full recovery from sleep debt returns our body to its baseline, reducing the risks associated with sleep loss.

    A full recovery from sleep restriction can take even more time, according to a 2021 study from Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, which showed the need for long recovery time to alleviate effects from prolonged sleep loss.

    The study examined the recovery process of a prolonged period of restricted sleep. Researchers asked 13 healthy adults to track their sleep for three weeks, with 10 of those nights consisting of restricted sleep. After the restricted sleep phase, the participants were allowed to sleep as much as they wanted. Aside from tracking sleep quality, researchers also had participants complete several tasks that measured reaction time and accuracy.

    When given a cognitive functioning test, participants displayed worse performance during the 10-day sleep restriction period, then showed a gradual yet incomplete recovery in the final phase of the study, when participants could sleep as often as they liked. “The new result is long recovery time,” researchers identified. Even a full week of opportunity to recover after the 10-night span of restricted sleep wasn’t enough for the participants to reclaim a fully functional brain, according to the findings.

    Tips for Catching up on Sleep

    If you’re hoping to catch up on sleep after accumulating sleep debt, here are a few ideas for getting back to a healthy sleep schedule and recovering from the effects of sleep loss:

    • Consistency is key: Build time into your schedule for sleep and try to keep your bedtime and morning alarm at the same every day, even on weekends. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is important for resyncing circadian rhythms.
    • Keep a diary: A sleep diary can help you track your sleep patterns and any patterns or practices that are affecting your sleep. Try the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep diary, it only takes a few minutes a day.
    • Try an afternoon nap: While napping isn’t a replacement for lost sleep, it can help you feel more rested during the day. Naps may be particularly helpful for shift workers or people who can’t maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Even a short power nap can refresh the rest of your day.
    • Give it time: Remember that it can take days to recover from a sleep debt. Increase your sleep time slowly, by 15- to 30-minutes at a time, until you reach the optimal amount of sleep for your body. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene and consistently getting enough rest, and your body will do the rest.
    • Talk to your doctor: If sleep debt is interfering with your daytime activities or if you’re having trouble recovering, it’s important to talk to your doctor. A doctor can discuss the possibility of an undiagnosed sleep disorder, like insomnia, and offer personalized tips for improving your sleep.
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    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Rob Newsom

    Staff Writer

    Rob writes about the intersection of sleep and mental health and previously worked at the National Cancer Institute.

    author
    Dr. Anis Rehman

    Endocrinologist

    MD

    Dr. Rehman, M.D., is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine as well as Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Rob Newsom

    Staff Writer

    Rob writes about the intersection of sleep and mental health and previously worked at the National Cancer Institute.

    author
    Dr. Anis Rehman

    Endocrinologist

    MD

    Dr. Rehman, M.D., is a board-certified physician in Internal Medicine as well as Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism.

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