A third of Americans incur a debt every night that they may never be able to repay: sleep debt.
This is where the concept of “catch-up sleep” comes in: you try to gain extra hours of sleep on the days following a period of poor sleep. For example, sleeping on weekends.
But do those extra hours of sleep actually protect you from the health risks of sleep deprivation?
The results of studies are mixed on the subject, but after checking the research and talking to some experts, we can say that it seems possible to catch up on sleep, but it is difficult to achieve.
Why it’s hard to catch up on sleep
Psychiatrist and sleep medicine expert Alex Dimitriu believes you can catch up on sleep, but only if you haven’t let your sleep debt get too big. By definition, one hour of lost sleep equals one hour of sleep debt.
“If the sleep debt is greater, the recovery time becomes significantly longer and full recovery may not be possible, so it’s important not to let the sleep debt go too far,” said Dimitriu, Founder from Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, to Insider. .
Keeping your sleep debt in check is important because “over the long term, not getting enough sleep can lead to medical problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, increased risk of cancer, and immune dysfunction,” said James A. Rowley, former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Foundation.
Perhaps the most intriguing findings on sleep debt and recovery time come from a small study that proposed that for every hour of sleep debt, a person would need four constant nights of seven to nine hours of Zzzs. quality to fully recover.
So if you need seven hours of sleep a night but only get six during the work week, you’ll rack up five hours of sleep debt on Friday.
According to the study’s predictions, this means that you would need around 20 days of consistent quality sleep to fully recover.
So getting a few hours of sleep over the weekend is probably not going to solve this problem.
“While you can make up for an hour or two on the weekends, you can’t make up for a lack of sleep for the whole week just by sleeping in those extra hours,” Rowley said.
That said, in 1963, a 17-year-old stayed awake for 11 days for a science project. He dealt with temporary nausea and memory loss, but said after 14 hours of sleep he felt back to normal.
Although this is not an experience that Dimitriu would like to see his patients or anyone else repeat, it should be noted that there is more room for studies on how prolonged periods of sleep affect people’s sleep. health risks for people who are already chronically sleep deprived.
And if the weekend is the only time you can find to sleep, it’s “better [sleep hours] weekend rather than not doing it at all,” said Lyndsay Dodgson, professor of biological psychology at Stockholm University.
So what can you do if you’re like a third of Americans who sleep less than six hours a night?
How to pay off sleep debt
Paying off a sleep debt is like paying off a credit card debt: try to pay off all or as much of the total balance so the debt doesn’t grow too much.
This means not waiting for the weekend to try to make up for an entire week of lost sleep. Instead, if you miss an hour or two of sleep, try to make it up immediately the next day, either with a nap – preferably 20 to 30 minutes – or a good night’s sleep the following evening.
Most important, however, is that you set a sleep schedule and stick to it. “Sleep loves regularity and rhythm,” Dimitriu said, because it maintains a constant circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm, often referred to as your internal clock, affects a whole host of important bodily functions, including temperature regulation, hormonal control, memory, concentration and, of course, sleep.
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule — that is, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day — is an essential way to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm and, subsequently, be healthier. That’s why sleeping might not be the best option, and brief naps might be better.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and not everyone can change their schedules to allow for more sleep.
For example, if you work nights, have multiple jobs, or have to take the kids out early in the morning, you’re more likely to have sleep debt, but you have less flexibility to deal with it. Do your best to get as much sleep as possible.
“In these circumstances, even finding an extra 15 minutes a night can make a big difference,” Rowley said.
It may also be worth thinking outside the box. For example, a recent study found that when people moved from a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week, the percentage of those who slept less than seven hours a night fell from 42.6% to 14.5%.
However you decide to try to get more sleep, just remember that sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
“Sleep should be considered diet and exercise, one of the pillars of overall good health, and should be prioritized as they are,” Rowley said.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
Learn more about Business Insider: