Can You Really Catch Up on Lost Sleep?


We’re all guilty of sacrificing a night of sleep here and there. We stay out late, spend our night catching up with our favorite TV show, or read into the early hours of the morning, knowing we’re going to feel tired and cranky the next day. 

Can you catch up on that lost sleep, though? Is one night of good sleep going to make up for a couple of nights without it? 

Understanding Sleep Debt 

To answer that question, we first need to calculate our sleep debt. Start with the amount of sleep your body needs per night. For healthy adults, it’s usually around 8 hours and 10 minutes. Then calculate your acute sleep debt: the total hours you have missed compared to the hours you should have gotten. 

This is the kind of sleep debt that impacts your mood and your short-term wellbeing. It makes you irritable and anxious, wants you to eat more sugar and drink more caffeine, and impairs your memory, focus, motor skills, and reaction times. 

The funny thing about acute sleep debt is that it creeps up on you. If you are consistently getting seven instead of eight hours of sleep every night for a week, your brain will become just as impaired as if you hadn’t slept for 24 hours straight. 

If you notice any of the signs of sleep deprivation, take a minute to figure out if you are losing sleep. It may account for your lack of focus and foul mood.

Luckily, acute sleep debt is reversible. Chronic sleep debt, however, is not. 

Chronic Sleep Debt 

This is the kind of sleep deprivation you can never repay. It’s caused by years of inadequate sleep, the effects of which can cause long-term health damage. 

By not getting enough sleep over an extended period of time, you are at an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, depression, and high blood pressure. You will also be saddled with the effects of acute sleep debt: lack of focus, inability to make rational decisions, and mood swings. 

Can You Catch Up On Lost Sleep? 

Yes, you can catch up on acute lost sleep. Just two nights of recovery sleep can significantly improve the effects a week of poor sleep has caused. Recovery sleep means that you oversleep your usual needs in order to make up for the lost hours of rest. In the short term, this strategy will work. 

Catching up on a chronic sleep debt will be more difficult. While you can certainly benefit from extra sleep, which will tackle your acute sleep deprivation, it will take a long time to get where you would have been had you been sleeping well in the first place. There is no reliable, concrete scientific evidence to prove how long it may take or if it’s even possible. 

How to Catch Up On Lost Sleep 

If you have not been getting enough sleep, start implementing these subtle changes tonight. They will start making a difference soon, and you will start feeling better. 

  • Go to bed 15 minutes earlier every night. If you can, you can even try to get an extra 30 or 60 minutes in. If you spend just 30 minutes less on social media and the internet per day, you can quickly start catching up on your sleep needs. 
  • Wake up no more than 30 minutes later. Don’t oversleep for longer than that, as it will throw off your circadian rhythm, and you will feel even worse. It may be very difficult to get out of bed when you sleep in, so use a hack to help you
  • Take naps during the day. Make sure they are not too close to your evening bedtime, and nap for either 10-20 minutes or set aside no longer than 90 minutes. Power naps can help you regain your focus and energy levels and get more done in a day. 
  • Get a better mattress. If you’re uncomfortable in your bed, the quality of your sleep will suffer. Find a mattress without fiberglass that will help you wake up more energized. Invest in soft bedding and try a relaxing pillow mist. 
  • Ditch all screens 60 minutes before you go to bed. You can read your Kindle, but make sure you don’t look at your phone, TV, or computer right before bed. 
  • Make better lifestyle choices. Getting your daily steps in, working out, and eating a balanced diet will all help you sleep better at night and catch up on the sleep debt you may have accumulated. 

Wrapping Up 

We often take sleep for granted and underestimate its importance. While missing a night of sleep here and there is perfectly acceptable, try to stop yourself before you accumulate a sleep debt you won’t be able to pay back.

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