Can You Catch up on Sleep and Reverse the Damage?

If you’re not getting the shut-eye you need, you can do short- and long-term damage to your well-being and performance. So, can you catch up on sleep?

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.

Acute vs. Chronic Sleep Debt 

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

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

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.

How Do You Know If You Have Acute 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? 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).

You Know Your Sleep Debt Number, So What Should You Do Next?

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.  

How Can You Avoid Sleep Debt? 

Can you catch up on sleep: A woman reads a book and drinks tea before bed

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:

  • Keep consistent bed and wake times: The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need and your ideal bedtime.
  • Be strategic about your light exposure: Expose yourself to light (preferably sunlight) as soon as you wake up, and remove most light (especially blue light) 90 minutes before your target bedtime. 
  • Exercise regularly: Physical activity during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night.
  • Avoid known sleep disruptors in the hours before bedtime: Alcohol, caffeine, late-night snacking, and excessive hydrating can all disrupt your sleep.
  • Institute a wind-down routine at the end of the night: Drink a cup of tea, take a warm bath or shower, listen to calming music, or read a chapter of a novel. You’ll also want to avoid blue light while you're winding down or use blue-light blocking glasses.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary: Keep it cool (65-68 degrees), keep it dark (use blackout curtains and an eye mask), and keep it quiet (use a white noise machine or earplugs). 

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. 

How Can You Catch Up on Sleep the Right Way?

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:

  • Go to bed a little earlier: When you need extra sleep, one way to catch up is by adjusting your sleep schedule. Try going to bed a little earlier each night through the week to help you catch up and lower your sleep debt.
  • Take well-timed naps: Because napping too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep at night, aim for a nap during your afternoon energy dip that lasts at least 10 minutes (a power nap) but not longer than 90 minutes.
  • Wake up later: As a last resort, sleep in later when you can. Just don’t go to extremes. Waking up at a drastically different time can throw off your circadian rhythm (energy schedule) for the day. So it’s best to wake up within one hour of your normal wake time.

Catching up on Sleep Really Pays Off   

Can you catch up on sleep: A woman holds a pillow and peeks out from under her sleep mask

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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About Rise
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.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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