Each person requires a genetically-determined amount of sleep that’s right for them. When you’re not getting enough sleep (which is to say, not meeting your body’s sleep need), you suffer from sleep deprivation. Short-term or acute sleep deprivation can negatively impact things like your mood, focus, reflexes, and immune system. Long-term or chronic sleep deprivation can increase your risk for developing things like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
So, how long does it take to recover from sleep deprivation? The answer depends on how much sleep you owe your body and whether you’re trying to recover from acute or chronic sleep deprivation.
In this article, you’ll learn about the effects of sleep deprivation, the benefits of recovery, and how to keep track of and make up for the hours of sleep you owe your body. Although you probably won’t be able to do it in one night or with one nap, recovery from acute sleep debt is possible — if you know the right way to do it.
Sleep debt is another word for sleep deprivation. Acute sleep debt is the sleep you’ve owed your body over the past 14 days. It’s the difference between the sleep your body needs and the actual sleep time you’re clocking during that two-week window. Because it’s this number that best predicts how you feel and perform during the day, lowering sleep debt is our main focus at Rise Science. But there is a difference between acute sleep debt — the 14-day version of sleep debt you can track with the RISE app — and chronic sleep debt.
Acute or short-term sleep debt is a reflection of your near-term sleep performance. Keeping your sleep debt low is important because the effects of sleep loss on your emotions, cognition, and physiology are often felt within hours. Since it takes just 16 hours of wakefulness for the brain to be negatively impacted, you don't even have to pull an all-nighter to start feeling the effects.
What are these effects? You may become more irritable, have less willpower, be in a worse mood, have trouble paying attention, have duller reflexes, lose verbal acuity, start metabolizing food differently, experience a weakening of your immune system, and immediately increase your risk for drowsy driving accidents. Just 18 hours without sleep can give you the same level of cognitive impairment as a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%.
Chronic sleep debt is different. For example, if your sleep need is 8.5 hours and you’ve slept roughly six hours per night all through your 20s, 30s, and 40s, that’s considered chronic or long-term sleep debt. The health effects associated with that level of sleep deprivation — increased risk for weight gain and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, psychiatric disorders, fertility problems, cancer, and other chronic diseases — are so deleterious that sleep insufficiency has been labeled a public health epidemic.
It's important to note that this isn't an either/or situation. If you have chronic sleep debt, and you haven’t made it a priority to meet your sleep need over the past two weeks, then you almost certainly have acute sleep debt as well.
Whether or not you can recover from sleep deprivation or sleep debt depends on what type of debt you’re trying to recover from. Acute sleep debt is actionable. When you make up for the lost sleep, you can reverse the impairments caused by short-term sleep deprivation.
In an important study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, participants who had their sleep restricted to 4.5 hours per night for a full week experienced a dramatic boost in cognitive performance and mood after just two full nights of recovery sleep.
While the scientific evidence confirming the body’s ability to recover from short-term or acute sleep debt is solid, the science on recovering from chronic or long-term sleep debt is murkier. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some experts have doubts about the body’s ability to recover completely from the deleterious health consequences associated with chronic sleep deprivation.
However, even if you can’t reverse the effects of chronic sleep debt, you can reap benefits from catching up on acute sleep debt fairly immediately, and it's absolutely worth making the effort to do so.
Although a single nap or sleeping more than you need on a single night is probably not enough to reverse the cumulative effects of short-term sleep loss, there are some simple tactics that can help you recover from acute sleep debt.
The good news is, when it comes to getting the benefits of sleep, there's only one thing that matters: meeting your sleep need. Unlike what you might have heard, healthy sleep isn't about something nebulous like “sleep quality" (for which there is no scientifically agreed upon definition) or even time spent in a specific stage of sleep, like REM sleep. What it boils down to is whether or not you’re consistently getting the amount of sleep you need to have sufficient energy during the day.
When it comes to sleep need, eight hours is a generalization. Your specific sleep need is determined by factors that are unique to you, including your genetics and your age. The RISE app will use a year’s worth of sleep data that’s stored in your phone to calculate your own unique sleep need number for you.
The reason it’s vital to know how much sleep debt you’re carrying is simple: You’ll never know if you’ve recovered from acute sleep deprivation if you don’t know how many hours of sleep you have to make up. In other words, you need to know what your sleep debt is if you want to get serious about paying it down. The RISE app uses sleep data from the last 14 days to calculate your sleep debt.
Being able to see that number is vital because you might not even realize you’re suffering from the effects of high sleep debt. As humans, we adapt biologically within a few nights to recurring sleep loss. So you may think you’re doing just fine, but all the while your performance continues to decline, and your subpar cognitive performance will start to feel normal.
In a perfect world, we would all have zero sleep debt. But in the real world of busy lives and demanding schedules, having zero sleep debt is unrealistic. Instead, aim for a sleep debt of five hours or less. For most people, keeping their sleep debt below five hours still leaves them able to feel good and perform at or near their best. Plus, it gives you a little freedom if you want to stay up late one night to watch one more episode on Netflix! 🙂
Whether you go to bed a little earlier, wake up a little later, or take a nap during your afternoon dip, any extra hours of sleep you can get will help you chip away at your sleep debt. Read on for more details.
Saving money for a rainy day might help you avoid credit card debt, but it doesn’t work the same way with sleep. You can’t “bank” sleep in anticipation of a short night of sleep later in the week. But there are ways to lower your sleep debt.
Going to bed a little earlier each night until you pay off your sleep debt is one option. Naps during your afternoon dip can help, too. When you don’t have another option, sleep in, but not for more than an hour past your usual wake time.
Being strategic about the timing of your sleep — wake time, naps, and bedtime — can help you optimize your overall sleep outcomes and prevent you from falling deeper into sleep debt. That optimization should be guided by your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock that tells you when to be awake and when to be asleep. The RISE app’s energy screen shows you the predictable peaks and dips in energy you’ll experience during each roughly 24-hour cycle of your circadian rhythm.
Based on this framework, you can figure out the best times to squeeze in a little extra sleep. For instance, you’ll see that the ideal time for napping is in the afternoon during your midday dip. The app also tells you the best time to go to bed, based on the time of night your body is producing the highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
If you've optimized your sleep schedule and improved your sleep habits but still cannot reduce your sleep debt, talk to a doctor or health care professional about possible sleep disorders or underlying health problems. Your doctor may order a sleep study, run tests to rule out sleep apnea and other conditions, or refer you to a sleep medicine specialist.
How quickly you can recover from short-term sleep deprivation (or acute sleep debt) depends on how much time you’re willing and able to devote to getting extra sleep. You have to outsleep your sleep need to have any chance of making up for lost sleep.
Getting two extra hours of sleep on a Saturday morning won’t make up for six hours of missed sleep during the week. But squeezing in a mid-afternoon nap that Saturday and Sunday will probably get you closer.
But here’s the thing: It’s not a straightforward equation. Not all 14 nights are equally weighted when it comes to measuring sleep duration and sleep debt. Last night carries the most weight — 15% of the overall weighting, per the RISE algorithms — but that leaves 85% riding on the previous 13 nights. From those numbers we can deduce two things:
About 80% of RISE users start to feel the benefits of making up for lost sleep within five days.
When it comes to improving your overall sleep health, lowering acute sleep debt is the name of the game. And the RISE app can help. Recovering from sleep deprivation won't happen overnight, but over time the hours of supplemental sleep will add up to a more well-rested and better feeling and performing you.
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