Can you catch up on sleep? Sleep debt

Can You Really Catch Up On Sleep?

Skipping sleep can cause troubles when you're awake

Is it possible to catch up on sleep? If you stay up several hours during the week and sleep for say only 4 hours each day. On the weekend, can you recoup the four hours of sleep you lost each day?

Here’s the thing, the habit of playing catch up is slippery.

Because we play catchup with watching our favorite TV shows. We play catch up with paying off debt. Sometimes we even play catchup with exercising.


But playing catch up with sleep can cause many troubles. 

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you need to make up for the sleep you should have gotten.

Most experts agree that at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night is ideal to help be productive.

So you’re only sleeping for about 4 hours each night, your sleep debt each night is 3 hours at the very least.

The concept of sleep debt is similar to any kind of debt. If left unchecked, the debt and its interest compound, and soon, it becomes insurmountable. 

According to one study, for each hour of lost sleep, it takes up to four days to recover. It’s really difficult to make up for that lost sleep (more tips on that in a moment).

But it’s not only the recovery that’s challenging.


Studies from neuroscientists and sleep experts show that sleep deprivation can cause many health hazards including:

  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Low testosterone levels
  • Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Poor ability to learn new tasks (learning)
  • Poor ability to remember (memory)
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes

So if you’re thinking you can cheat on sleep during the week and catch up over the weekend, it’s time to think again.

As we’ve seen, sustained sleep debt and sleep deprivation can cause you more than you think.

What to do if you want to make up for lost sleep?

While we don’t encourage sleep deprivation, sometimes life happens. And for some reason, you’re not able to get the full hours of sleep you need.

New parents, for example, tend to struggle to get enough sleep when caring for their new babies. If that’s you, let’s see a few things you can do.

Let’s continue to stick with the financial analogy of paying off debt. Where do you usually sleep?

Stop getting into more sleep debt

This is the first step. You can’t continue to add on to your sleep debt and think everything will be alright. 

Start making little changes at night to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep. This will also help you wake up early or refreshed.


Simple things you can do range from changing bedroom light, starting a device curfew at a certain time to avoiding caffeinated beverages before a certain time at night.

If the nighttime is impossible because of new responsibilities, find time during the day to sleep for a few hours.

A few minutes of an afternoon nap can help you think more clearly, react faster, and become more alert. This is especially true if you’re experiencing jet lag after traveling.

Take baby steps to repay your existing sleep debt

If you have a massive amount of sleep deficit, it’s likely you won’t be able to recuperate all those lost sleep hours in a few weeks. 

It’s important to start making a conscious effort to get more rest than you’d need on a consistent basis.


So instead of sleeping for 8 hours, add an additional 30 minutes so you get 8.5 hrs of sleep.

That simple change means that a week, add 3.5 hours of extra sleep into your schedule, even without noticing it.

Put bedtimes on your calendar

This sounds like an extreme, but it’s one of the effects if you want to get a good night’s rest.

Putting it on your calendar serves as a cognitive reminder during the day when you look at your calendar of the commitment you’ve made to yourself to sleep better and more hours. It primes you for what’s ahead.