You had a big project due at work. You’re planning a big event. You’ve just started a new business. You’re writing a book in addition to work, kids, etc. You just have too much to do. Whatever your reason, you’re racking up debt to the Sandman. Sleep debt. And if you don’t pay it back, it’s going to lead to some unpleasantness (to say the least). Studies show even short-term sleep loss can impair your memory, judgment, focus, and creativity. It can make you less attractive, more hostile, and more sensitive to pain. Over time, it plays into obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and more.
So, how do you erase your sleep debt – can you really catch up on sleep? Will it reverse the damage that may have been done? Here’s what the science says.
Scenario 1: I barely slept last night; can I catch up on sleep today?
If you generally get 7-9 hours of sleep a night, one night of sleep loss isn’t a big deal. In a study of adults who slept only 5 hours the night before, a 10-minute nap during the afternoon improved vigor and cognitive function almost immediately. (Note: the researchers tested naps of varying lengths and 10 minutes was the sweet spot.) In addition to the nap, go to bed a half-hour or hour earlier than usual and you should be good as gold tomorrow morning.
Scenario 2: I didn’t get enough sleep this week; can I catch up on sleep this weekend?
Depending on how much of a sleep debt you racked up, you should be able to reverse most of the damage done with some extra shuteye over the weekend. A study from the University of Colorado found that getting 10 hours of sleep 2 nights in a row helped the body’s insulin sensitivity rebound after 4 consecutive nights of 4.5 hours of sleep. Another similarly structured study had mixed results:
- After 6 nights of 6 hours of sleep, daytime sleepiness and the body’s marker for inflammation increased significantly. Two nights of 10-hour recovery sleep brought these two measurements back to normal.
- Attention levels dropped significantly over the course of the 6 days. Unlike the other factors, attention performance did NOT rebound after recovery sleep.
Scenario 3: The past few months have been crazy; can I ever make up for the sleep loss?
The science of sleep debt is still in its infancy, so there aren’t a lot of studies examining the effects of recovery sleep after several months of sleep loss. As with the studies above, there might be some repairable damages and some irreparable ones. Tack an extra hour or two of sleep on each night in the coming weeks. When you can, go to sleep when you’re tired and wake up when your body says to (no alarm clocks) to reset your system.
Scenario 4: I can’t remember when I had 8 solid hours of sleep. Is there any way to counteract this amount of sleep debt?
Nope. There’s simply no way around our biological need for adequate sleep, which is why chronic sleep loss results in irreversible damage to your body. Still, there are some studies showing improvements after catch-up sleep. For example, one study found insulin sensitivity improved after 3 nights with 10 hours of sleep. Another study found an hour of weekend ‘catch-up’ sleep was associated with a 39% decreased risk of hypertension.
What’s the best thing to do if you can’t catch up on sleep? Start sleeping more. It’s an obvious answer and many might scoff at the simplicity, but it’s the only solution. You can’t alter your body to need less sleep than it really needs any more than you can alter it to need less air, water, food, or exercise than it needs. Depriving our bodies of what they biologically need causes harm. There’s no way around it.
So, start prioritizing sleep as much as you can.
- Have a set schedule for going to bed and waking up.
- Create a calming bedtime routine like reading or meditating before you lie down to sleep.
- Turn off TVs, computers, and devices about 30-60 minutes before bed. (It’s so tough in today’s techy world, but this is your health and longevity we’re talking about.)
- Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
- Exercise (but not within 4 hours of bedtime).
- If you have trouble sleeping, turn to natural remedies.
And, take our quick sleep hygiene survey to get customized recommendations for sweeter slumber!
All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.