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.
We’ll start by explaining the difference between acute and chronic sleep debt as well as the negative side effects of each. 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.)
Acute sleep debt happens in the short term. It’s a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed, as 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.
Chronic sleep debt, on the other hand, is long term. This is the kind of sleep deprivation caused by decades of insufficient sleep. So for example, if you spent your 20s, 30s, and 40s 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. But on top of this, you’ll also be experiencing the effects of acute sleep debt from the short-term sleep you’re losing.
So, can you catch up on sleep when you’re chronically sleep deprived? Although some experts have expressed doubts about the body’s ability to recover completely from the accumulated effects of chronic sleep debt, the science isn’t conclusive. So, the real answer is: We don’t know yet.
But all hope is not lost. Even though you may or may not be able to catch up on chronic sleep deprivation or resolve its effects, you can still tackle your acute sleep debt.
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 be more productive, be in a better mood, and increase your energy levels naturally.
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? The RISE app is the best way to know for sure. 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).
Keeping your sleep debt low (studies suggest five hours or less) will allow you to avoid the damaging effects of acute sleep deprivation and ensure you have the energy to do the things you want and need to do during your waking hours.
Depending on your sleep debt number, you’ll either want to maintain your current level by meeting your sleep need or pay down your sleep debt by catching up on sleep.
And, when you keep your below five hours, it 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 any 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. But give it some thought. Don’t just snooze anywhere, anytime, as it can 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, among other things. Following that energy schedule will give you the best sleep and energy outcomes. But 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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