If you're suffering from sleep deprivation, can you catch up on sleep? The answer is yes — for the most part. Why the qualifier? It depends if you're suffering from acute or chronic sleep debt.
In this article, we’ll start by explaining the difference between acute and chronic sleep debt (and how to calculate acute sleep debt) as well as the negative side effects of each. We’ll also look at a key study showing recovery from acute sleep debt is possible, dispelling a myth that’s arisen from conflating acute and chronic sleep debt. After that, we’ll dive into the steps you can take to avoid sleep debt and catch up on sleep.
As we’ve mentioned, your ability to catch up on lost sleep depends on whether you have acute or chronic sleep debt. (Of course, if you have chronic sleep debt, you almost certainly have acute sleep debt as well.)
To know your sleep debt, you first need to know your sleep need. Your sleep need is the amount of sleep your body requires so you can have the energy you need during the day. It’s unique to you and genetically determined, just like your height or eye color. Adults on average need about 8 hours and 10 minutes (plus or minus 44 minutes) of sleep each night, with about 13.5% needing 9 hours or more.
Acute sleep debt happens in the short term. It’s a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed compared to the amount of sleep your body needed over the past 14 days.
This kind of sleep debt can have immediate, negative impacts on your emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. In the short term, not getting enough sleep can increase anxiety, make you feel irritable or moody, and weaken your immune system. You might also notice trouble with your memory, focus, reaction time, or motor skills.
In fact, if you go just 18 hours without sleep, you’ll suffer the same cognitive impairment you’d have with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. After 24 hours with no sleep, the effect is similar to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10%, which is over the legal limit for driving in every state.
And if you have a sleep need of eight hours and you go 10 consecutive nights getting just seven hours of sleep, your brain can become as impaired as it would if you hadn’t slept at all for a full 24 hours. (This might be hard to believe since losing sleep throughout the week doesn't feel the same as pulling an all-nighter. That's because our bodies adapt, but more on this later.)
So, whether you’re pulling all-nighter or your sleep loss is more gradual throughout the week, you’ll be doing the same damage and experiencing the same negative effects. The good news: It is possible to catch up on acute sleep debt and reverse its negative side effects. We’ll cover some tips for doing so later on.
Chronic sleep debt, on the other hand, is long term. This is the kind of sleep deprivation caused by years of insufficient sleep that’s never paid back. For example, if you spent years getting only six hours of sleep per night when your body needed 8.5 hours per night, you’d have chronic sleep debt or be chronically sleep deprived.
Over time, the cumulative effects of chronic sleep debt have been associated with serious health consequences, including insulin resistance, an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart disease, and stroke. On top of this, you’ll also be experiencing the effects of acute sleep debt from the short-term sleep you’re losing.
Sleep research has generally been inconclusive when it comes to reversing chronic sleep debt. This may be due in part to the inherent difficulties of collecting accurate sleep data on study participants over the course of several decades. However, acute sleep debt is known to be reversible. When your acute sleep debt is high, you don’t feel your best, and your performance suffers. So by catching up on sleep, you’ll improve your productivity, mood, and energy levels naturally.
There is a persistent myth in popular media claiming we can’t catch up on a lack of sleep. However, significant evidence suggests we can in fact recover from the effects of acute sleep debt by getting extra sleep. So, why does the myth persist?
While it remains unclear how (or if) we can make up for decades of accumulated chronic sleep debt, 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. This is false: As was previously mentioned, we can in fact recover from acute sleep debt. (It may also be possible to reverse chronic sleep debt, though we don’t yet know this for sure.)
A canonical study on the question of whether you can pay back acute sleep debt asked participants to restrict their sleep to just 4-5 hours per night for seven consecutive nights. The study measured participants’ total sleep during two “baseline” nights, seven nights of sleep restriction, and two “recovery” nights. It also measured mood states (including sleepiness) and psychomotor task performance (i.e., reaction times) each day. While participants scored significantly worse on all metrics during the sleep restriction period, their scores were able to bounce back to their baseline scores after two nights of recovery sleep.
This suggests recovery sleep, or out-sleeping your typical need in order to catch up on lost sleep, actually works in the short term. Moreover, even if you suffer from chronic sleep debt, you very likely also have acute sleep debt and will experience benefits from catching up on your current sleep debt. That said, depending on your current level of sleep loss, two nights of extended sleep may not be enough to catch up. Tracking your sleep debt will help you determine how many extra hours you need, and the RISE app will automatically calculate this for you.
As we’ve seen, the research on chronic sleep debt is inconclusive. However, while we know we can make up for acute sleep debt, we also know this is sometimes impractical for people — a reality that can lead to misleading headlines, distorting the actual research of paying down sleep debt.
For example, a recent article about a study on sleep debt explained how difficult it may be to make up for weekly sleep debt with weekend sleep, if your sleep debt from the prior week is significant and/or if you don’t get enough extra sleep on the weekend. However, someone browsing the article may only see the subheader, “Why You Can’t Pay Off Sleep Debt on Weekends” and be led to think this pertains to biological ability, rather than issues of time and prioritization as the article goes on to somewhat explain.
Perhaps it’s more catchy than, “You Can Pay Off Sleep Debt on Weekends if You Make Time For It,” but the conflation of biological ability with issues of time and prioritization has the unfortunate potential of confusing and misleading those who are seeking important answers about recovering from lost sleep.
For some, even if the difference between biological ability and time management is clear, it may be tempting to believe we can’t make up for missed sleep. The demands of our work, school, and social schedules may seem to make it impossible for us to get enough sleep, and if we can’t make up for it, then we shouldn’t bother trying, right?
Unfortunately, this attitude will only compound our chronic sleep deprivation in the long run. Meanwhile, making up for acute sleep debt is the proverbial low-hanging fruit, and the benefits of paying it down can be felt almost immediately. Acute sleep debt is something to address right here and now, before 14 days go by and it risks being added to your chronic sleep debt.
It is often difficult for people suffering from acute sleep deprivation to know that they are and to recognize its effects.
This is because humans adapt biologically within a few nights to sleep loss, so you’ll think you’re doing just fine. Meanwhile, your subjective performance continues to decline without you realizing it. Thanks to this adaptation, your subpar cognitive performance will start to feel normal.
More bad news: These adaptive changes can continue to restrict your brain’s operational capacity for several days. You either have to outsleep your sleep need to pay back the debt or let the clock run out on the 14 days (all the while meeting your sleep need). The time it takes to recover will vary depending on how much sleep debt you have.
So, how do you know for sure if you’re suffering from acute sleep debt? Using the RISE app is the best way to know. While most sleep advice mistakenly focuses on getting “quality” sleep (even though there’s no scientific consensus on what this means) or spending a specific amount of time in a particular stage of sleep (e.g., deep sleep or REM), the RISE app looks at your quantity of sleep (i.e., whether or not you met your own personal sleep need) as the predictor of how you feel and perform. The app will tell you what your personal sleep need is and calculate your sleep debt number for you (i.e., the number of hours of sleep you’ve missed over the past 14 days).
Once you learn your current sleep debt number, what should you do with this information? Depending on how high or low it is, you’ll either want to maintain your current level by continuing to meet your sleep need or pay down your sleep debt by catching up on sleep.
Keeping your sleep debt below five hours gives you a little extra flexibility or wiggle room with your sleep schedule. For example, if your sleep debt is only three hours and you want to stay up an extra hour to watch another episode of your favorite show, you can do that, knowing you won’t suffer major consequences the next day.
No one is perfect. We all get less sleep than we need from time to time, but how much sleep debt is too much? At Rise, we recommend keeping your sleep debt under five hours to maintain daytime energy levels that are up where you need them to be. At less than five hours of sleep debt, most people can still feel good and perform at their best.
To avoid excessive sleep debt that can be detrimental to your energy levels and your overall health, follow these guidelines:
If you follow all of these guidelines to improve your sleep hygiene but you’re still struggling to get the sleep your body needs, talk to a healthcare professional. Your doctor might recommend a sleep medicine specialist or order a sleep study to identify or rule out a possible sleep disorder.
If the amount of shut-eye you’re getting at night falls short of meeting your sleep need, squeezing in a few extra hours here and there can help. However, this takes planning. Don’t just snooze anywhere, any time, as this could disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm (or energy schedule) is your body’s internal clock that dictates your ideal sleep and wake times. It encompasses predictable periods of energy peaks and dips during roughly 24-hour cycles.
The RISE app’s energy screen tells you your ideal wake time, the time of your afternoon energy dip, your wind-down time, and bedtime (as well as your two energy peaks). Following that energy schedule will give you the best sleep and energy outcomes. When you get thrown off track for one reason or another and start to accumulate sleep debt, it’s important to keep your circadian rhythm in mind when you start catching up on sleep.
Here are the right ways to catch up on sleep:
It is possible to catch up on sleep if you’re suffering from acute sleep debt. By catching up on sleep, you’ll reverse the short-term damage done from not meeting your sleep need, and you’ll have more energy to be and feel your best during the day.
The RISE app can help you keep track of your sleep debt and your progress toward lowering it. It will also help you plan the best way to catch up on sleep when you need to.
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