People tend to think that once sleep is lost, it is gone forever. Many experts are saying that it is possible to catch up on sleep and is necessary to successful functioning of the mind and body. Sleep debt is sleep deprivation as it adds up and causes negative consequences such as weight gain, lack of focus, irritability, memory loss and fatigue. 1 Sleep debt does not go away on its own and can add up very quickly. Sleep requirements are different for different people; however, most individuals need between seven and nine hours of sleep to make up for 16 hours awake. 1
According to sleep expert and psychology professor Dr. James B. Maas, “You can’t repay years of sleep debt by one night of good sleep, any more than you can compensate for years of overeating by a one-day diet.” 1
Some of us can look back over the past month or year and see the sleep debt piling up. All those restless nights when you only managed to sleep for a few hours or waking up early to finish a project… We acquire sleep debt without even realizing that we have. In fact, because of the negative symptoms of being sleep deprived, the more sleep debt we have, the less our tired minds can notice how sleep deprived we have become. 2
The best way to repay sleep debt is by allowing yourself to recover from a sleepless week during the weekend. Most of us sleep late on the weekends, but we do not know exactly what we are making up for. If you miss 10 hours of sleep in a week, adding three or four hours to your weekend sleep schedule should help you recover from your debt. 2 Continuously planning on using the weekends to recover can cause you to accumulate more sleep debt and confuse your biological clock. This will also cause chronic sleep debt, which will only make it more difficult to return to sleep homeostasis. 3
If needing to repay a large sleep debt, it is suggested to take a relaxed vacation with very little activity planned and take the time to catch up on sleep and wake up naturally. 2 The most important thing is to avoid accumulating more sleep debt. By continuously allowing yourself to sleep as much as your body needs to, you will be preventing sleep deprivation and the harmful symptoms that come along with lack of sleep.
1. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.
2. Harvard Medical School—Repaying Sleep Debt; http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Repaying-your-sleep-debt.shtml
3. WebMD—Sleep Debt Hard to Repay; http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20100115/sleep-debt-hard-to-repay