Sheep running on a racetrack with one falling desperately behind symbolizing sleep debt associated with insomnia

True or False: You Can Catch up on Lost Sleep

Many experts recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep for a good night’s rest. This may vary slightly from person to person, but most fall in this range.

Unfortunately, with the demands of everyday life, stress, and conditions like insomnia, getting all of these hours in each night may not be possible. For many, this means accumulating a sleep debt.1-3

What is a sleep debt?

A person has a sleep debt when the amount of sleep they are getting each night falls short of their body’s needs.1,4 Each person’s sleep needs are different, meaning their sleep debts will be different, too. For example, one person may need 7 hours a night to be properly rested. If they get 6 hours of sleep each night of the workweek (Monday through Friday), they are missing 1 hour of sleep each night. By the weekend, they are 5 hours in “sleep debt.”

As mentioned, each person’s sleep needs can vary. Some people may need 10 or more hours a night to be fully rested, while others may only need 6 or fewer. It has been thought that our sleep needs are determined by our genes.2,4 This makes them hard, if not impossible, to change. A person who needs 9 hours of sleep cannot train or reprogram their body into needing 4 or less hours. It can take weeks or even months of a consistent sleep schedule to figure out what your body truly needs.

What does the research say about repaying sleep debt?

Even though sleep is such a vital part of our wellbeing, there is still so much left to learn about it. We do know that long-term sleep deprivation can lead to health consequences, like memory issues, concentration difficulties, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and more. Short-term effects include brain fog, memory problems, trouble seeing, and difficulties driving.1,3,4

Some studies on sleep debt have found that missing 2 to 4 hours of sleep each night for two weeks straight may lead to the same amount of memory issues and focusing difficulties as someone who pulled an all-nighter the night before.3,5

Although our understanding is not completely clear, it is apparent that repaying your sleep debt is not as simple as making up each hour of sleep missed at a later time. Additionally, some people may be so “in debt” that making up individual hours could be incredibly challenging and may not be possible.

Can I make up a short-term sleep debt?

The easiest solution seems to be sleeping in on weekends or taking naps to make up lost sleep during the week before. While this sounds promising, there are some shortcomings to this approach.

Our body’s sleep schedule is regulated by our circadian rhythms. This is a complex set of signals and hormones that tell our bodies when they should be alert or when they should rest. Our circadian rhythms are influenced by physical light. Getting natural light early in the morning may help a person feel more alert during the day and sleepy at bedtime. When a person sleeps in on the weekend, they are missing that early morning light.

This may disrupt their circadian rhythm and make it more difficult to follow a normal sleep pattern Sunday night and into the following week. If a person is going to try to sleep more on the weekends, it may be beneficial to go to bed earlier and wake up at a normal time rather than sleep in later in the morning, to keep rhythms as normal as possible.1-3,6

What about napping?

Napping also has similar shortcomings and benefits. Both napping and sleeping in may help reduce the short-term effects of sleep debt. A person who sleeps in or naps may have improved memory for the day or feel more alert. However, like sleeping in, napping too late in the day can impact a normal routine. Taking a late afternoon nap may make it harder to fall asleep at night, further worsening the sleep debt problem.1,6

What can I do now?

Experts have suggested that the best way to repay a sleep debt is little-by-little over an extended period of time. If you are someone who experiences regular insomnia, this may be challenging. You may need to work with your doctor to figure out the best treatment plan or medications to help you get as much sleep as possible.1,3,4,6

With that said, when a person is able to sleep through the night, it may be beneficial to find out what their body’s true needs are. One way to do this is to set aside time to let your body sleep as much as it wants. This means, not setting an alarm clock and giving your body complete freedom. If you do get to a point where you can sleep through the night, your body may keep you asleep for 12 or more hours depending on how large your sleep debt is. Over time, your body will start to adjust, and will naturally start waking you up when it has gotten what it needs.3

This is a process that can take days or even weeks for some people. It may not be feasible for everyone, depending on work or family schedules, but if you are able to let your body find its own set point, it can help you “repay” your debt and determine your needs for the future.

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