Is It Possible to Compensate for a Sleep Deficit?

These days, many people nowadays don’t get enough sleep or good quality sleep. Sedentary jobs and the use of electronic devices have only increased the prevalence of sleep issues. You may wonder if it's possible to compensate for a sleep deficit. Can you sleep less during the week and "catch up" on the weekends? Read on to find out.

Key takeaways:
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    Getting sufficient sleep is a key aspect of physical and mental health.
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    Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep your body needs and how much you actually get.
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    Recovering from a sleep debt takes time and consistency.
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    While getting more sleep is better than not enough sleep, there are risks associated with sleeping too much.

Sleep patterns over time

According to a 2021 study by the National Sleep Foundation, 63% of Americans say they do not sleep enough throughout the week. Forty-eight percent of Americans report insomnia occasionally, while 22% experience insomnia every or almost every night. About 15% of adults between 19 and 64 say they sleep less than six hours on weeknights. Ninety-five percent use electronics like a television, computer, video game, or cell phone at least a few nights a week within the hour before bed.

People's sleep patterns have changed quite a bit. In 1942, getting 8 hours of sleep was the norm; now, 6.8 hours is the average. Our sleep quality and patterns have changed even more after the pandemic people started to go to bed later and get less sleep. Not surprisingly, this has had an impact on the amount of deep and REM sleep that people get, which can have drastic health impacts.

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt, also called a sleep deficit, is relatively straightforward — it is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they end up getting. So if your body needs 8 hours of sleep and you only sleep for 5, you will have 3 hours of sleep debt.

Sadly, sleep is not the same as a loan from a friend or a bank. You can't just borrow some sleep and compensate for everything in one go.

When it comes to sleep, being consistent is very important. Your body works based on a routine, and waking up and going to bed at the same time is essential, even on the weekends.

A concern about sleeping in on weekends is that a little extra rest can offer a false sense of recovery when you're underslept. You may feel better for a little while after getting extra sleep, but the snowballing effect of sleep loss is a debt that takes longer to repay.

Do you have sleep debt?

A lot of people have a sleep debt, and it is not that hard to find out if you are one of them.

If you fall asleep quickly (in under 10 minutes), you might have sleep debt, and your body needs more sleep.

Another way to check is seeing how long you would you sleep if you did not set an alarm. If you wake up way later than you usually do, you might have sleep debt, and your body needs extra sleep.

The wolf experiment

I would not suggest anyone do this experiment, but I have found it very curious.

What is the wolf experiment? It shows the adverse effects that sleep debt has on the human body.

An acquaintance of mine found out that wolves do not sleep at night but sleep every hour for 10 minutes instead. For him, it seemed like a bright idea to try it. His goal was to have a quick 10-minute nap every hour everywhere he could — at work, in his car, etc.

His experiment lasted only for a couple of days. He felt physically exhausted and emotionally defeated almost immediately. So, once again, I wouldn’t suggest to try it, but it is interesting to see how much of an influence sleep can have on your body.

Avoiding sleep debt

If you’re hoping to catch up on sleep after stockpiling your sleep debt, here are a few ideas for recovering from some of the effects of sleep loss and returning to a healthy sleep schedule:

  • Consistency. Build time into your sleep schedule and keep your bedtime and morning alarm at the same time every day (+/- 1 hour), even on weekends. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is essential for resyncing circadian rhythms.
  • Sleep diary. Keeping a sleep diary can help you track your sleep patterns and any behavior affecting your sleep. Give it a go it only takes a few minutes a day, and you might learn new things about what affects your sleep.

Recovering sleep debt

Research has shown that it can take up to four days to recuperate from one hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt. A complete comeback from sleep debt returns our body to its baseline, reducing the risks associated with sleep loss.

Increase your sleep time slowly, by 15 to 30 minutes at a time, until you reach your body's optimal quantity of sleep. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene and consistently getting enough rest — your body will do the rest.

Taking a nap is often the first thing that comes to mind when we are tired or under-slept. A brief, 10 to 20 minute rest may help you feel more rejuvenated during the day. A mid-afternoon nap can increase working memory, learning, and mental sharpness for a few hours.

Another well-known method is sleeping longer on the weekends to catch up on sleep. There is no clear evidence if sleeping in actually compensates for sleep debt or simply portrays a return to our standard sleep patterns. Unfortunately, one study found that sleeping in on weekends doesn't reverse the metabolic dysregulation and potential weight gain associated with regular sleep loss.

Is it possible to get too much sleep?

The short answer is getting more sleep is better than less sleep. But a couple of studies found a link between longer sleep times and an increased risk of premature death — a 23% increase for nine hours, a 52% increase for ten hours, and a 66% increase for 11 hours of sleep.

The researchers found that getting more than eight hours of sleep was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease — a 17% increase for nine hours and a 23% increase for ten hours. But don't change your sleep patterns just yet; if you think that you sleep too much or too little, discuss any radical changes with your doctor.

Remember that sleep is essential to our bodies, and it is not easy to recover from sleep debt. Before you shorten your sleep time for any reason, think twice. If you want a healthier sleep rhythm, try to be consistent with your sleep and wake-up times, keep a sleep diary, try napping, and see what works for you.

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