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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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: