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Yes, You Can Catch Up on Sleep. A Sleep Expert Explains How

If you’ve missed out on sleep recently, you can catch up. Try heading to bed a little earlier, sleeping in a little later, or taking an afternoon nap.
Published
2021-05-18
Updated
2024-02-22
22 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, Rise Science Scientific Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man trying to catch up on sleep by taking a nap.

Can You Catch Up on Sleep? 

  • Yes, you can catch up on sleep if you’ve recently missed out on shut-eye. 
  • More research needs to be done, but studies show you can reverse the damage for at least some health and mental performance metrics. 
  • Use the RISE app to work out how much sleep you need to catch up on (known as your sleep debt) and get personalized recommendations to help make it happen.

We all know we need to get enough sleep for our energy levels, health, and productivity. But all too often, life gets in the way. Once you’ve missed out on sleep, is it a lost cause?  

Scientific research suggests you may be able to catch up on sleep and reverse at least some of the damage. 

Below, we’ll dive into the question of whether you can catch up on sleep (spoiler: you can!). Plus, we’ll cover how the RISE app can help you catch up and avoid missing out on sleep in the first place.

A Sleep Doctor's Take:

“More research needs to be done, but it does seem we can catch up on sleep when we’re sleep deprived. If you haven’t been getting enough sleep recently, try heading to bed a little earlier tonight or taking a short afternoon nap to get some more rest.”

Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

What is Sleep Debt?

Before we dive into whether you can catch up on lost sleep, you need to know about one important term: sleep debt.

Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s compared to your sleep need, the number of hours of sleep you need. 

When you don’t meet your sleep need, you start building up sleep debt. And this can lead to everything from low energy to poor focus, weight gain to heart disease. 

You’ll have sleep debt if you’ve been pulling all-nighters or staying up late and waking up early. But you may also have sleep debt if you don’t know your sleep need, as you might need more sleep than you think.

Our sleep need insights: When we looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and older, we found the median sleep need was eight hours. But 48% of users need eight hours or more a night — and some need 11 hours 30 minutes!

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need each night.


There are two distinct types of sleep debt to be aware of: acute and chronic. 

Acute Sleep Debt 

Acute sleep debt is short-term sleep debt. At RISE, we measure this over your last 14 nights. You might have had a short night of sleep last night, or have been missing out on an hour of sleep each night over the past two weeks. 

Acute sleep debt can lead to: 

  • Daytime sleepiness 
  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability 
  • A weakened immune system (a 2023 study found there’s a 27% increased risk of infection in those who get less than six hours of sleep)
  • Digestive issues 
  • Reduced attention span and focus 

It doesn’t take long to feel the effects of this short-term sleep deficit. One study found if you go about 18 hours without sleep, you’ll suffer the same cognitive impairment as if you had a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. 

After about 18 to 20 hours without sleep, the effect is similar to having a blood alcohol level of 0.1% — over the legal limit for driving in every state. 

Sleep debt adds up, too. One study found getting six hours or less sleep a night over 14 nights causes the same cognitive performance deficits as if you’d had up to two nights of no sleep at all. 

Can you pay acute sleep debt back? Yes! Studies suggest you can pay back acute sleep debt. More research needs to be done, but it seems energy levels, mood, certain health metrics, and some cognitive impairments can improve when you catch up on sleep. We’ll dive into the research (and how you can pay it back) soon.

Chronic Sleep Debt 

Chronic sleep debt is the sleep debt that builds up over months or years. For example, if you need nine hours of sleep, but you’ve spent your whole adult life only getting six or seven hours of shut-eye, you’ll have some serious chronic sleep debt. 

Chronic sleep debt can lead to: 

  • Diabetes 
  • Weight gain and obesity 
  • Cardiovascular diseases and problems like high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and heart attacks 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Increased risk of having multiple health conditions (a 2022 study found sleeping for five hours or less a night at ages 50, 60, and 70 was linked to having two or more chronic diseases 

Can you pay chronic sleep debt back? Maybe. More research needs to be done. It’s hard to accurately study chronic sleep debt as researchers need to collect data from participants over the course of several decades. 

But, if you have chronic sleep deprivation, you very likely also have acute sleep debt. So you may be able to catch up and feel better on at least some of this sleep loss. 

To find out how much sleep you need and whether you have any sleep debt to catch up on, turn to the RISE app.  

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need and here to view their sleep debt.

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Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

Science shows it is possible to catch up on sleep if you’ve built up acute sleep debt, but it doesn’t happen overnight. 

A canonical study asked participants to restrict their sleep to about five hours per night for seven consecutive nights. The study measured participants' total sleep time during two “baseline” nights, seven nights of sleep restriction, and two “recovery” nights. It also measured mood, sleepiness, and cognitive performance, like reaction time, on a task each day.

Participants scored significantly worse in all of these metrics during the sleep restriction period, but their scores bounced back to their baseline scores after two nights of recovery sleep. 

This suggests that recovery sleep, or out-sleeping your sleep need to catch up on lost sleep, works in the short term.

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep debt you have.

Catching Up on Sleep May Reverse Health Impacts of Sleep Loss 

Catching up on sleep may protect your health. A 2023 study looked at weekend catch-up sleep in Korean workers who cut their sleep short during the week. The research looked into how catch-up sleep affects dyslipidemia, or high cholesterol. 

The results showed those who caught up on two hours or more sleep at the weekend had a decreased risk of high cholesterol compared to those who didn’t catch up on sleep.  

And so the study concluded, “sleeping more on weekends for workers who had a lack of sleep during the week can help prevent dyslipidemia.” 

Catching up on sleep may even decrease your risk of death. One study found the mortality rate of those who slept for five hours or less during the week and nine hours or more on the weekends was the same as those who consistently got seven hours of sleep. 

Again, this led to the conclusion: “long weekend sleep may compensate for short weekday sleep.” 

And another study found sleep deprivation causes a heightened sensitivity to pain, but recovery sleep helps restore our pain tolerance. 

Catching Up on Sleep May Reverse Mental Performance Impacts of Sleep Loss 

Beyond health benefits, catching up on lost sleep may help us perform better mentally, too.

One study found taking a two-hour nap after a night of total sleep loss helped boost participants’ alertness and performance. And it even reversed the increased cortisol (the stress hormone) the all-nighter caused. 

And there’s the study we mentioned above that found reaction time bounces back with recovery sleep.

Catching Up on Sleep May Not Reverse All Damage 

Unfortunately, not everything can recover when you catch up on sleep. For example, one study found sleep deprivation caused a decrease in frontal lobe (a part of your brain) function. But recovery sleep was only partially restorative. 

Another study looked at participants who got six hours of sleep for six nights and then 10 hours of sleep for three nights. IL-6 (an inflammatory compound) increased during sleep deprivation, as did sleepiness, but both returned to normal after the recovery nights of sleep. Cognitive performance, however, decreased during sleep deprivation and didn’t rebound during recovery sleep. 

And yet another study found weekend recovery sleep didn’t prevent the insulin sensitivity and weight gain that sleep loss can lead to

This may show catching up on sleep can’t fix everything, or it may be because the participants in these studies didn’t get enough recovery sleep to reverse the damage. In the weight loss study, participants only got an extra hour or so of sleep in total over the weekend.

But before you give up on catching up, we argue this research is still good news. 

Catching up on sleep doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you can only partially recover from lost sleep, you’ll still feel and perform better than if you hadn't caught up on anything at all.  

Heads-up: While weekend recovery sleep can be beneficial, you shouldn’t rely on it. As this study concludes, “the long-term effects of a repeated sleep restriction/sleep recovery weekly cycle in humans remain unknown.”

Our advice? If possible, get enough sleep each night. But if you do miss out on sleep, catch up when you can. Your body and brain will thank you for it.

The Final Verdict 

These studies show that some aspects of your physical health, mental performance, mood, and energy levels can bounce back when you catch up on sleep.  

In fact, we’d argue that the fact we as humans can sleep for longer than we usually need when sleep deprived suggests this extra sleep serves a biological purpose. So any extra shut-eye you get may be needed.

Plus, this extra sleep you get when catching up looks different from normal nights. When you get more sleep to recover from a period of sleep deprivation, you may experience something called “REM rebound.” This is when you get an “increase in the frequency, depth, and intensity of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep." 

Sleep researchers believe this may be because your brain prioritizes deep sleep when you’re not getting enough sleep overall, but then takes the chance to catch up on REM sleep when it can. 

The final verdict: All this points to the conclusion that it is possible to catch up on sleep. 

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How Long Does it Take to Catch Up on Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep schedule
The RISE app can tell you when to go to bed to help you catch up on sleep.

Now you know you most likely can catch up on sleep, how long does it take to do so? 

There’s no clear-cut answer. The more sleep debt you have, the longer it’s going to take to recover. One 20-minute afternoon nap may not cut it. 

One of our sleep advisors is Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, co-director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University. He worked on a real-world study of sleep loss and its effect on work performance. 

The results showed that work performance slows after one night of insufficient sleep, and slows even more after a second night of insufficient sleep. 

The paper states, “on average, it takes three nights to make up one insufficient night of sleep.” And it takes six nights to make up for two insufficient nights of sleep in a row.”

Here’s what Dr. Zeitzer has to say, 

“Unfortunately, catching up on sleep may take longer than you think. Instead of trying to catch up in one go, make an effort to get to bed a little earlier over the course of a week or two to pay down any sleep debt you’ve built up.”

Other research backs up this idea. One study found one hour of sleep loss takes four days to recover from.

And depending on how sleep deprived you are, it may take even longer. A 2021 study restricted participants’ sleep by 30% for 10 nights. They then had a recovery period of seven nights. At the end of the seven nights, participants still hadn’t fully recovered from the sleep loss. 

You can start the process of catching up on sleep quickly, though. We found within the first two weeks of using the RISE app, users with more than five hours of sleep debt were able to reduce their debt by about two hours.

Heads-up: RISE can give you an estimate of how long it will take to pay back your sleep debt. The smart schedule feature takes into account your goal wake-up time, sleep need, and how much sleep debt you have. Armed with this information, the app gives you a bedtime that helps you chip away at sleep debt, and it gives you an estimation of how many days it’ll take to catch up on sleep.

The Higher Your Sleep Need, the Longer it Can Take to Recover 

Beyond how sleep deprived you are, it may take longer to catch up if you’ve got a high sleep need to out-sleep. 

For example, if your sleep need is nine hours, you might try to sleep for 10 hours to catch up on sleep. You might even need a whole week or longer of 10-hour nights to catch up. But this can be hard to do if you’ve got a busy work schedule and family obligations. 

And all the time you’re not meeting your sleep need, you’re building up more sleep debt. This means the catch-up process will take even longer. 

Your Biology Can Make it Harder to Catch Up on Sleep 

Beyond family and work life getting in the way of catching up, your biology can work against you. This is where your circadian rhythm comes in. 

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s roughly 24-hour internal clock that dictates your sleep-wake cycle. It’s always ticking away inside of you, no matter when and how much sleep you get. 

If you suddenly decide to go to sleep four hours early to try and catch up on lost sleep in one go, you’ll probably find your body won’t let you drift off. 

On the flip side, if you try to sleep in for longer than usual, you might find your circadian rhythm wakes you up at roughly the time your alarm clock usually rings, or only an hour or so later. 

Long daytime naps (think more than 90 minutes), meanwhile, can precipitate more sleep debt by reducing too much sleep pressure to fall asleep when you’d like. Sleep pressure is your body’s drive to sleep that accumulates while you’re awake, helping you fall asleep at night.

In short, it can take a while to catch up on sleep — and there’s no set number. But the energy, productivity, and health benefits are worth it.

Curious about what your circadian rhythm looks like? RISE predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm each day, so you can see when your body naturally wants to go to sleep and wake up. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.

Why Do People Think You Can’t Catch Up On Sleep?

You might have seen the headlines saying you can’t catch up on sleep, or heard the common thinking that once sleep is lost, it’s lost for good. 

It’s a popular myth — but it’s a myth nonetheless. Here’s why so many people believe it. 

Conflating Acute and Chronic Sleep Debt 

It remains unclear how (or if) we can make up for decades of chronic sleep debt. So not recognizing the difference between this and acute sleep debt may lead someone to mistakenly believe it isn’t possible to make up for any sleep debt at all. 

But this simply isn’t true. Studies show you can catch up on acute sleep debt. And we still don’t know if it’s possible to catch up on chronic sleep debt yet. 

Misleading Headlines and Misunderstood Research 

We know we can catch up on recent sleep loss. But we also know it’s easier said than done. This can lead to misleading headlines stating that catching up on sleep is impossible, when in fact, it’s difficult — but doable. 

For example, one study explained how difficult it can be to catch up on weekly sleep debt at the weekend. This makes sense. After all, if you miss out on a lot of sleep during the week and/or don’t get enough extra sleep on the weekend, you’re not going to be able to catch up in two short days. 

However, some articles sharing the study may only focus on the fact it’s hard to catch up on sleep at the weekends, forgetting to explain that it is still possible.

We Adapt to Sleep Loss 

Our bodies are very good at tricking us into thinking we feel fine and are performing perfectly well on not-enough sleep. Research shows we’re largely unaware of our declines in cognitive performance when we’re sleep deprived. 

So it’s easy for us to believe catching up on sleep isn’t possible as we don’t need to (when in fact, our performance, energy, and health could be so much better if we did). 

Our Own Wishful Thinking

Hear us out, but some people may not want to believe it’s possible to catch up on sleep. 

Catching up on sleep means sleeping for longer. And that’s not always easy to do with long work hours, energetic kids, and late nights with friends or relaxing with Netflix. 

It can feel impossible to get enough sleep sometimes, let alone get even more to catch up. So why bother trying, right? 

Unfortunately, this attitude will only make our sleep debt worse. And as the benefits of catching up on sleep can be felt straight away, we’re big proponents for doing it, even when it can be tricky to fit in.

How Do You Know if You Have Sleep Debt?

It’s hard to know if you have sleep debt. As we said above, we adapt to sleep loss and may not even realize our performance has taken a hit. And if you don’t know how much sleep you need, you can never really know if you’re getting enough or not. 

Instead, get some solid answers with the RISE app. RISE works out your individual sleep need and calculates how much sleep debt you have. 

We measure it over your last 14 nights of sleep, and recommend you keep it below five hours to feel and perform your best. 

Got more than five hours of sleep debt? It might be worth catching up on sleep to get more energy, improve your brain power, and protect your health.

Heads-up: Metrics like sleep quality and time in REM and deep sleep are interesting, but they’re not as helpful as sleep debt — and there isn’t an agreed definition for quality sleep yet. 

The amount of sleep you get (and the amount you’ve missed out on) has the biggest difference to your energy levels. And sleep debt is a metric you can control (more on how to catch up on sleep soon). 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.

How Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

RISE app screenshot showing the smart alarm
The RISE app can tell you if your alarm is adding to sleep debt when you set it.

Now we’ve established that studies show it is possible to catch up on sleep, it’s time to get caught up. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Take naps: Nap no later than the afternoon and limit naps to 90 minutes to make sure you can still fall asleep at night. Check RISE for the best time to nap. 
  • Go to bed a little earlier. 
  • Sleep in a little later: Keep this to an hour or two to avoid messing up your circadian rhythm and struggling to sleep the next night.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Good sleep hygiene habits can cut down the time it takes you to fall asleep and reduce how often you wake up during the night, meaning you get more sleep overall. 

Expert tip: Use RISE’s smart sleep schedule. The app takes into account your sleep need, when you need to wake up, and how much sleep debt you have. It then recommends a bedtime that gently moves earlier to train your body to get more sleep. You’ll see how many days it will take until you’ve paid down your sleep debt and have caught up on sleep. 

RISE’s alarm feature can also help you catch up on sleep. It tells you if your alarm time is contributing to sleep debt as you set it. And it shows you opportunities to chip away at sleep debt to make waking up easier. 

Depending on how much sleep debt you have, you may not be able to get caught up on sleep in one go. Remember it’s an ongoing process. Even if you can only squeeze in a power nap on Sunday and an early night on Wednesday, any extra sleep will help. 

RISE can keep track of how much sleep debt you have as you work to pay it back.

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How to Avoid Sleep Debt?

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ habits to help you get enough sleep.

We still don’t know the long-term impacts of missing out on and then catching up on sleep. So the best thing to do is to not miss out on sleep in the first place. 

This, of course, isn’t always possible. But here’s some science-backed advice to help make it easier: 

  • Keep a consistent sleep pattern: Resist the snooze button and try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day — unless you’re paying back sleep debt. Regular sleep-wake times will keep your circadian rhythm in check, which will help you feel sleepy at bedtime. Our user data backs this up. RISE users with low sleep debt have more consistent sleep-wake times than those with high sleep debt.
  • Get natural light in the mornings: This will reset your circadian rhythm for the day. Aim for at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up, or 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window.
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Bright light can keep you up in the evening. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed (we recommend these).
  • Exercise regularly: Physical activity during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night. Just be sure to avoid intense exercise within an hour of bedtime as this can keep you up. 
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night, building up sleep debt. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily. Our personalized caffeine cut-off reminder is one of the most used features in the app.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine: RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest barriers to a good night’s sleep. Try doing a relaxing bedtime routine that includes reading, listening to music, journaling, or doing yoga before bed. RISE can walk you through relaxation exercises in the app — one of the most popular features to help users get more sleep.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Block out anything that can cause sleep loss. Aim for 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, use blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask.

You don’t need to keep track of all of these tips. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ good sleep habits to help make getting better sleep and keeping sleep debt low easier. 

If you follow these habits and still can’t get enough sleep, reach out to your healthcare provider. They may recommend a sleep medicine specialist or order a sleep study to see if you have an underlying sleep disorder.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Catching Up on Sleep is Possible 

It is possible to catch up on sleep if you’re suffering from acute sleep debt. You’ll be able to get more energy, reverse certain health and well-being impacts, and boost aspects of your mental performance.  

The RISE app can help you catch up. RISE can tell you how much sleep you need, how much sleep debt you have to catch up on, and recommend a sleep schedule and well-timed sleep hygiene habits to help you get more sleep.

The best part? You start catching up on sleep fast — 80% of RISE users get more sleep within five days.

FAQs

Can you catch up on sleep?

Yes, you can catch up on sleep by heading to bed a little earlier, sleeping in a little later, taking short afternoon naps, and improving your sleep hygiene. Research shows it can take four days to recover from one hour of sleep loss. If you’ve got more sleep loss, it will take longer. Your energy levels, some health metrics, and some mental performance impairments have been shown to improve when people get more sleep after being sleep deprived.

Can you catch up on sleep after an all-nighter?

Yes, you can catch up on sleep after an all-nighter. Research shows taking a two-hour nap after an all-nighter can boost alertness and performance and reverse increased cortisol levels caused by the sleep loss. You may need more sleep over several nights to fully recover.

Can you catch up on sleep on the weekends?

Yes, you can catch up on sleep on the weekends by heading to bed a little earlier, sleeping in a little later, taking short afternoon naps, and improving your sleep hygiene. More research needs to be done, but studies show getting more sleep at the weekends can reverse adverse effects from short sleep during the week on your mood, sleepiness, and certain aspects of your health and mental performance. How much you can catch up all depends on how much sleep you need to catch up on and how much extra sleep you can get.

Can you catch up on sleep by napping?

Yes, you can catch up on sleep by napping. Research shows you can boost alertness and performance, and reverse increased cortisol levels caused by an all-nighter with a two-hour nap the next day. But you may need more sleep, or several days of taking naps, to fully recover.

How long does it take to catch up on sleep?

How long it takes to catch up on sleep all depends on how much sleep you’ve lost out on. Research shows it can take four days to catch up on one hour of lost sleep, and it can take six nights to make up for two insufficient nights of sleep in a row. The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need to catch up on and how long it will take.

How to catch up on sleep?

Catch up on sleep by heading to bed a little earlier, sleeping in a little later, or taking an afternoon nap. It may take several days or even longer than a week to fully catch up on sleep. The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need to catch up on and how long it will take.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

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