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How to Catch Up on Sleep Debt

To maintain a healthy body and mind, we all need to get enough sleep. That exact amount varies from person to person1, but go without and it will likely take a toll.

So we know that we all require a good night’s sleep in order to keep energised and alert and to boost our immune systems. Yet even with this knowledge, many of us don’t sleep enough.

This can be due to lifestyle, of course. Perhaps it’s down to a hectic schedule or because of, say, irregular shift patterns at work. For many people, however, regular restful sleep can just be hard to come by. For what can seem like no reason.

If you suffer from sleep loss, it can really play on your mind. You may be wondering if it’s possible to recover any of it, to claw any back. Let’s look into that topic now; explore what ‘sleep debt’ is and look into the possible ways you may be able to catch up on it…

What is sleep debt?

There are two numbers we need to consider when we talk about sleep debt or ‘sleep deficit’. There’s the amount of hours you ideally need to sleep per night and the amount you actually sleep. That time difference is your sleep debt.2

Let’s say that you function best on seven hours of sleep a night, that’s a pretty average amount.3 But due to late nights, early mornings, insomnia, pets, children – whatever the cause of your sleep interruption or deprivation – you only get five hours. Your sleep debt is two hours a night.

It’s cumulative too. Two hours may not sound a lot in isolation, but it accrues as the nights pass. Add up your weekly sleep debt and you start to see the problem. Using our example, your deficit is 14 hours a week. That could be an issue.

What happens when we don't get enough sleep?

Without the required amount of nightly rest, we can suffer in all sorts of different ways. Fail to get enough sleep and you could well experience one of more of the following issues4:

  • Tiredness that can lead to full-on fatigue
  • A negative impact on your alertness
  • Irritability
  • Negative effects on your cognitive ability
  • A susceptibility to the cold
  • An inability to focus for periods of time
  • Issues surrounding your weakening immune system
  • A drop-off in efficiency and/or creativity at work
  • Anger
  • Stress
  • Depression

There are also a host of medical conditions which someone with sleep deprivation may find themselves affected with.5 These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Heart palpitations
  • Strokes

There are other, more unexpected effects too,6 such as:

  • An increase in the likelihood of causing a car accident
  • Ageing of the skin
  • Decreased libido
  • Impaired judgement

Can sleeping in on weekends help?

If you’re accruing sleep debt, it’s likely that it’s worse during weekdays. The obvious solution seems to be to sleep more when you’re able to. On weekends. Does this help, though? Well, put simply – yes it can. Somewhat, at least.

Sleep debt can be managed and – effectively – ‘paid off’ with catch-up sleep at weekends. At least to some degree, anyway.

There’s a limit to the amount of sleep loss that can be compensated for, though. It’s generally considered that you shouldn’t sleep in more than two hours more than your usual wake-up time.7 Too much extra snoozing and it can further interfere with your already quite fragile sleep cycle.

There are certain impacts that weekend catch-up sleep cannot help with. Studies have shown that any obesity or metabolic dysregulation suffered can’t be reversed by it.8

Unfortunately, there’s no concrete evidence that this kind of weekend ‘catch-up’ sleep is technically compensating for sleep debt, but at the very least it helps us return to a normal sleep pattern and means we’re not affected by sleep loss at weekends. So it’s worth exploring.

Will naps help reduce my sleep debt?

It’s not really possible to use power naps to eradicate any sleep deficit you build up. If you lose two hours a night, it’s impractical to nap for two hours the next day. Especially given that naps are recommended to last between 10-20 minutes.9

That’s not to say that there aren’t advantages to taking short naps, especially earlier in the day. They’re not sleep replacements, but they can help refresh you and make you feel more rested. They’ve even been shown to reduce stress.10

Naps can relieve drowsiness and improve your cognitive function for a while. Take too many or enjoy them for too long, however, they will just cause further interference in your ability to sleep at night.

How to defeat your sleep deficit completely

Sleeping in on weekends and small daily naps are the two main ways you can try to decrease your sleep deficit. There are a few other measures you can try too. The best ones are those that are preventative. They Include:

Keep a sleep diary

Monitoring your sleep, either with a diary or a monitor of some kind such as a smart watch. Note down when you fell asleep, when you woke up, even what you ate for dinner, wore to bed and what the room temperature was. You want to establish what factors affect your sleep and work around them to improve your slumber.

Optimise your bedroom for sleep

Make your sleeping space as dark, cool and quiet as possible. It needs to be as relaxing as possible. Invest in blackout curtains or some sort of air conditioning if needs be.

Exercise more

If you lead a relatively sedentary lifestyle, perhaps a little more energy expenditure could help tire you out and lessen your sleep debt.

Stick to a consistent bedtime routine

You may find that you sleep better when you stick to a regimented sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. To keep this up during the week, you may have to stick to it – more or less – at the weekend as well.

Think 'sleep'

In the build-up to bedtime, consider your precious upcoming sleep. Prioritise it over all else. Sure you may want a cup of tea, but do you need the caffeine? A snack might be nice, but it could affect your ability to doze off. Work around sleep.

If you’re a problem sleeper, you’ll likely always have some form of sleep debt or another. With that being the case, it’s vital that we learn to live with it and keep it minimised.

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