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Understanding sleep debt

Understanding sleep debt

What is sleep debt?

The amount of time you sleep is like putting money in a bank account. Whenever you don’t get enough, it’s withdrawn and has to be repaid. When you’re in chronic sleep debt, you’re never able to catch up.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans need about 7.1 hours of sleep per night to feel good, but 73 percent of us fall short of that goal on a regular basis. This is due to many factors, such as school responsibilities, long work hours, and increased use of electronics like smartphones.

Many people think they can make up for their lost sleep on the weekends. However, if you sleep too long on Saturday and Sunday, it’s difficult to get to bed on time on Sunday night. The deficit then continues into the next week.

Chronically losing sleep has the potential to cause many health problems. It can put you at an increased risk for diabetes, a weakened immune system, and high blood pressure. You might also have higher levels of cortisol —a stress hormone. This can lead to anger, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In addition, drowsiness increases your risk of falling asleep behind the wheel and getting into an accident.

Can you make up missed sleep the next night?

The simple answer is yes. If you have to get up early for an appointment on a Friday, and then sleep in that Saturday, you’ll mostly recover your missed sleep.

Sleep is a restorative activity — while you sleep, your brain is cataloging information and healing your body. It decides what’s important to hold onto, and what can be let go. Your brain creates new pathways that help you navigate the day ahead. Sleeping also heals and repairs your blood vessels and heart.

That being said, catching up on a missed night of sleep isn’t quite the same as getting the sleep you need in the first place. When you catch up, it takes extra time for your body to recover. It takes four days to fully recover from one hour of lost sleep.

Additionally, many Americans who lose sleep do so chronically instead of just once in a while. This creates a “sleep deficit,” making it harder to catch up on sleep and increasing the likelihood of sleep deprivation symptoms.

Tips for making up lost sleep

Not everyone needs the same number of hours of sleep per night. Some people need nine or more, and others are fine with six or less. To figure out how much you need, take stock of how you feel the next day after different amounts of sleep.

You can also figure out how much sleep you need by allowing your body to sleep as much as it needs over the course of a few days. You’ll then naturally get into your body’s best sleep rhythm, which you can continue after the experiment is over.


If you miss getting in enough hours of sleep, here are a few ways you can make it up.

  • Take a power nap of about 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
  • Sleep on the weekends, but not more than two hours past the normal time you wake up.
  • Sleep more for one or two nights.
  • Go to bed a little earlier the next night.

If you experience chronic sleep debt, the above recommendations won’t help very much. Instead, you’ll want to make some long-term changes.


  • Go to sleep 15 minutes earlier each night until you reach your desired bedtime.
  • Don’t sleep later than two hours past when you normally wake up, even on the weekends.
  • Keep electronics in a separate room.
  • Think over your evening routine to see if anything is keeping you up too late.
  • Stop using electronics two hours before bedtime.
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark and cool enough.
  • Avoid caffeine late at night.
  • Exercise no later than three hours before you go to bed.
  • Avoid naps outside of 20-minute power naps.

If these steps don’t help, or if you experience other sleep issues like narcolepsy or sleep paralysis, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from a sleep study to determine what’s wrong.

Risks of trying to make up lost sleep

Inconsistent sleep habits can increase your risk for various medical conditions, including:

  • diabetes
  • weight gain
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • delayed immune response
  • heart disease
  • memory problems

The good news is that getting enough sleep can reverse the increased risk of these diseases. It’s never too late to adopt healthy sleep patterns.

Benefits of getting more sleep when you can

The benefits of getting enough sleep are often overlooked. It might seem like you’re wasting precious working hours if you allow yourself to get a reasonable amount of rest. However, sleep is just as important an activity as anything you do while you’re awake.

Getting enough sleep improves learning and memory. People generally do better on mental tasks after a full night’s sleep. This means that if you get nine hours instead of seven hours, it might take you less time to do tasks the next day because your brain will be sharper. Doing tasks faster then makes it easier to go to bed at a reasonable hour the next night.

Additionally, getting more sleep can help your body stay healthy. It protects your heart and helps keep your blood pressure low, your appetite normal, and your blood glucose levels in the normal range. During sleep, your body releases a hormone that helps you grow. It also repairs cells and tissue and improves your muscle mass. Adequate sleep is good for your immune system, helping you ward off infections.

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