Can I Catch Up on Sleep?

Whether you’re working nights or binge-watching Game of Thrones, skimping on sleep is bad for your health. The consequences of sleep deprivation extend far beyond midday yawns and drooping eyelids (think diabetes and stroke). No wonder so many people are asking themselves, “How can I catch up on sleep?”

Read on for everything you need to know to finally answer that burning question, “Can I catch up on sleep?”

Should you aim for a sleep-in marathon on the weekend? How about a napfest in the afternoon? Raman Malhotra, MD, Associate Professor of Neurology at the Washington University Sleep Center in St. Louis, says either of these methods could help combat the effects of short-term sleep deprivation. However, neither is a failsafe plan.

“People can try and make up for sleep missed on prior nights,” he says, “but it usually takes several nights of ‘make-up’ sleep to reverse previous sleep debt. It still doesn’t always let individuals return to the optimal performance they would have had [with] adequate sleep on a regular basis.”

The best way to avoid the ill effects of sleep loss—no surprise here—is to get a good amount of zzzs every night. Since that’s not always realistic, Dr. Malhotra suggests catching up on sleep on your off days—taking naps, sleeping in, and going to bed earlier are ways you can help pay off your sleep debt.

Read on for everything you need to know to finally answer that burning question, “Can I catch up on sleep?”

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Does Sleeping In Help?

Sleeping in on the weekend can reverse the impact of mild sleep deprivation over one work week, say researchers of a study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism.

After six nights of reduced sleep, study volunteers experienced significant daytime sleepiness and a decrease in attention levels as well as a rise in IL-6 (a marker of inflammation). After two days of extended recovery sleep on the weekend, their sleepiness and IL-6 levels returned to normal. The volunteers’ attention levels, however, remained diminished despite the extra slumber.

The take-home? Extra weekend sleep can make up for some of the negative effects associated with sleep loss, but it won’t affect your focus.

Can You Make Up for Lost Sleep with Naps?

“Napping can be a great way to catch up on sleep,” says Malhotra. Aim for a “power nap” of 30 minutes in the afternoon. Your body is naturally sleepy at this time, so it will be easier to doze off. If you nap any longer than 30 minutes, your body will enter a deep sleep, which is tough to wake from.

That said, taking a two-hour mid-afternoon nap improves alertness and performance and reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), according to a study in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology & Metabolism. Napping also may have a positive impact on blood pressure.

Recovery Sleep Comes More Easily to the More Sleep-Deprived

A 2003 study in the Journal of Sleep Research examined 66 volunteers who spent either three, five, seven, or nine hours asleep each night for a week. They then slept for eight hours, three days in a row. The results:

  • Those who slept for only three, five, or seven hours noticed delays in their cognitive function (i.e., they had slower reaction times). These effects were more dramatic in those who slept the least.
  • After the first night of eight-hour recovery sleep, those who had slept for only three hours a night during the previous week recovered their speed and reaction times more quickly than the rest.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

According to the National Sleep Association, the average adult aged 18 to 64 needs between seven and nine hours between the sheets to observe sleep’s health benefits. Those over 65 can get away with six to eight hours.

But how much sleep are we getting?

The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll found that adults are sleeping an average of 6.8 hours on weekdays and 7.4 hours on weekends. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-third of American adults get less than the recommended amount of sleep. That’s a lot of people walking around in a tired fog.

Can You Bank Sleep?

So we know we can catch up on some sleep, but does it help to build a sleep “bank”? Yes, according to a 2009 study in the journal Sleep. When examining 24 healthy adults, researchers found those who got extra sleep (10 hours a night) for one week were more alert and showed better reaction times on tests conducted after suffering a week of dramatic sleep deprivation.

A small study published 2016 in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise agrees. After asking 12 volunteers to add two hours to their sleep for six days, researchers then had them skip sleep entirely for one night. Then, they tested the average time it took each volunteer to become fatigued when performing a knee-extension exercise.

The results: Volunteers tired more quickly after a sleepless night following a normal week of sleep. After banking six nights of extra sleep, however, they reached fatigue more slowly after sleep deprivation.

Sleep Recovery Time

How long does it take to recover from sleep deprivation? “It is not only the duration of sleep that is important, but also the different stages of sleep that your body enters, which cannot be made up in one ‘marathon’ sleep session,” Dr. Malhotra says.

In a 2010 sleep study, volunteers who slept for 10 hours after being sleep deprived for five nights felt almost back to normal the next day, but still suffered some effects of sleep deprivation. Researchers believe another day or more of extended sleep may have helped them to recover better. Those who are chronically sleep deprived may take much longer to notice results.

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