You’re lying in bed on a Sunday night, dreading the week to come. You’ve got a boatload of work to catch up on tomorrow night if you want to kick butt at that 7 a.m. meeting on Tuesday. And you’re so looking forward to the concert on Friday night, but you heard the last show didn’t let out until almost 1 a.m. Oh, crud! You still have to bake those brownies for your kid’s class fundraiser tomorrow! A 10 p.m. bedtime is definitely out of the equation now.
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That’s OK, you’ll make up the sleep debt over the weekend.
Or will you?
Many of us have tried to make up for lost sleep by pressing snooze on the weekends. But is what researchers call “weekend catch-up sleep” actually effective? We asked sleep medicine specialist Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS.
What is sleep debt?
According to Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer, sleep debt is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount you actually get.
“Experts agree that most adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night,” she says. That means that sleeping six hours a day for a week would leave you with a seven-hour sleep debt. And studies suggest that up to 1 in 3 of U.S. adults get under seven hours a night. Yikes!
Much like it can with a credit card, all that sleep debt adds up fast. But instead of accruing interest, you’re acquiring symptoms of sleep deprivation.
Side effects of sleep debt
You’ve probably heard that going 24 hours straight without sleep has the same physical impact of a blood-alcohol level over 0.1 — that’s above the legal limit in the United States. But you don’t have to pull an all-nighter to see the impact of poor-quality sleep.
In the short term, symptoms include:
- Drowsiness and irritability.
- Slower reaction time.
- Impaired memory, attention, judgement and decision-making.
- Poor vision, hearing, coordination and balance.
- Reduced energy and motivation.
- Decreased performance in many areas, including athletics.
Long-term sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for your physical and mental health. It can also put a strain on your relationships. The health impacts of consistently poor sleep include, but aren’t limited to:
- Increased risk of developing multiple health conditions, among them cancer, heart disease, dementia, and mental health disorders like depression.
- Immune system disfunction.
- Poor emotional regulation.
- Higher risk of accidents, falls and other injuries.
- Inhibited sex drive.
- Executive function issues.
Simply put, the price of sleep debt is pretty darned high.
Can you make up for lost sleep?
“In the past, sleep experts believed it was impossible to catch up on the sleep you lose — that once you’ve lost it, it’s gone,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer notes.
Lucky for us, recent research suggests that might not be true. At least, not completely.
In 2018, a long-term study found that folks who slept four, five or six hours a night during the week, then caught up on weekends, lived longer than those who remained sleep-deprived all week long.
Fast forward two years. A 2020 study found that catch-up sleep was associated with better health outcomes than just staying sleep deprived. Another article, also published in 2020, found that weekend catch-up sleep may help reduce low-grade inflammation — one of the many impacts sleep deprivation has on the human body.
More good news: A 2023 study found that weekend catch-up sleep may have a protective effect on adolescents, a group that desperately needs (but rarely gets) enough rest.
It’s important to note that these (and the many other) studies on weekend catch up sleep aren’t definitive. Other studies are finding that catch-up sleep is only effective in certain ways and certain situations. What makes the studies important, then, isn’t that they represent “proof”; it’s that they’re raising new questions and challenging our understanding of the science of sleep debt.
Oversleep isn’t the solution
While the current data suggests you may be able to make up lost hours, to some degree, on weekends, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer highlights a very important caveat: Oversleeping has some of the same consequences as undersleeping:
- Oversleeping is associated with depression, which is linked to a host of other health problems.
- Research suggests that oversleeping can make people groggy and cognitively impaired.
- Studies suggest oversleeping is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and having obesity as much as undersleeping because toxins and inflammatory markers build up.
Many people who try to catch up on sleep on the weekend end up oversleeping. Effectively reducing your sleep debt doesn’t mean sleeping for 13 hours straight on Friday and Saturday night. It means getting a healthy seven to nine hours. In other words: If you’re counting on catch-up sleep to reduce your sleep debt completely, it’s time to think about other options.
How to catch up on sleep
If trying to calculate your sleep debt requires a lot of mental math and carrying of zeroes, weekend catch up sleep probably isn’t going to be enough to get you back on track.
Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer recommends chipping away, slowly but surely, by doing things like:
- Going to bed 30 minutes to an hour earlier each night.
- Taking short naps (15 to 30 minutes) during the day.
- Adjusting your schedule, if possible, so you can wake up a tad later each morning.
And here’s even more good news: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we sleep more deeply when sleep-deprived, so you don’t need to stress yourself out by trying to make up every single hour you’ve missed.
Tips to avoid accruing a sleep debt in the future
We all understand the importance of practicing good hygiene. And — thanks to a lifetime of social priming — most of us prioritize it. If you’re checking your watch when you brush your teeth, it’s likely to make sure you’re brushing long enough. You’ll rarely hear somebody say they’re too busy to wash their hands, or that they’re waiting until the weekend to shower.
While it’s a bigger time commitment and harder to stay on top of, sleep hygiene is just as important as personal hygiene. We’re not going to get it right every night, but Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says we can improve our chances of being sleep debt-free by doing these six things:
Have a consistent sleep-wake schedule
It’s hard to resist the urge to sleep in when Saturday rolls around, but the science is clear: Falling asleep and waking up at the same time every day (also known as sleep syncing) is the best way to ensure you get consistent, quality sleep. You’re effectively training your body — by regulating your circadian rhythm — to recognize and respond to “bedtime.”
Take short naps … if you can
Some of us are nap people and some of us aren’t. And that’s OK! If you’re able to nap without disrupting your sleep, it can be a great way to feel more rested during the day and can help prevent your sleep debt from getting too far out of hand.
Just remember: Your goal when you nap should be to get about 30 minutes or fewer of shut eye and to do so before 3 p.m. According to Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer, you risk being groggy — or crossing the boundary into actual sleeping — if your siesta spans more than a half hour.
Have an evening ritual
Doing the same things every night can help get you into a sleepy state of mind. Your ritual doesn’t have to be complicated or fun to do the trick, but engaging your senses can be especially helpful.
Maybe you listen to the same playlist every night as you get ready. Or read for at least 20 minutes every time you get into bed. Or always dab some lavender essential oil on your wrist. Or make your last drink of the day a calming chamomile tea. Whatever gets you ready to rest!
Stay out of the red by avoiding the blue
When we stare at our phones, laptops, TVs and game systems before bed, we’re inhibiting the production of melatonin, one of the hormones that determines our circadian rhythm.
Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer suggests going screen-free for at least 30 minutes before you hit the hay to ensure that you’re not interfering with your natural sleep-wake cycle.
Embrace the darkness
Speaking of melatonin, that wondrous hormone of ours is stimulated by darkness. That means you’re likely to fall asleep faster in a room that’s pitch black. That could mean wearing an eye mask, getting blackout curtains, putting your electronic devices in a drawer or even installing motion-sensor night lights.
Cut the caffeine
That iced coffee you get every day after work might be delicious, but it’s not going to help you get your sleep habits back on track. While safe in moderation, you don’t want to overdo it on the caffeine.
Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says adults should limit their daily consumption to around 400 milligrams (mg) a day. If you’re not sure how much caffeine is in your favorite brew, check with your barista.
And keep in mind that when it comes to sleep, when you caffeinate is as important as how much you caffeinate. Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer further suggests you call it quits by between noon and 1 p.m. The good news: There are lots of ways to stay awake and alert during the day that don’t involve chugging sodas, iced tea, energy drinks or quadruple shot espressos.
Paying off your sleep debt
For a long time, sleep experts believed it was impossible to “catch up” on lost sleep — that once it was gone, it was gone. But new research suggests that you actually can make up at least some of your sleep debt by getting more shut eye on weekends.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a fool-proof plan. Sometimes, people who try to “pay back” their sleep debt on the weekend oversleep — and that’s not healthy either.
The best way to pay back a sleep debt is avoiding it in the first place. Instead of “banking” sleep on the weekends and being deprived during the week, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer recommends aiming for a stable sleep time and wake time every day of the week. This will help you get the regular sleep needed to restore your brain and every cell in your body.