Ask SleepBetter: Repaying Sleep Debt

Have you wondered about something related to sleep, but just can’t find the answer? Lots of people do, and that’s why we created Ask SleepBetter. You can ask your own question on the SleepBetter Facebook Page, or by using our Ask SleepBetter contact form. We will try to answer as many questions as possible, but we are not able to answer queries about physical issues or medicinal issues. Those should be addressed face-to-face with a physician.

Today’s question is from a Facebook friend who wants to know about catching up on lost sleep:

“Is it true that you can never catch up on your sleep if you miss on sleep one night?”
-Tom (via Facebook)

There’s a lot of ongoing debate about that topic, Tom.  Some experts say it’s not possible to pay back a chronic sleep debt.  Most sleep specialists say, however, that it’s possible to get caught up, particularly if you’re only catching up for a night or two of poor sleep.  But, it’s not easy.

Sleep debt is like real debt.  If you pay less than you owe, then you accumulate debt.  Likewise, if you sleep less than you should, you accumulate sleep debt.  Most Americans sleep less than seven hours every night, so most of us are walking around with a sleep debt.

The basic idea of getting rid of a sleep debt is like getting rid of a monetary debt — overpaying.  If your body needs 7.5 hours of sleep to function normally (everyone is different) and you sleep for eight hours, then theoretically you’ve paid back a half hour of your debt.  Most of us, however, have more than a half hour of debt.

If you plan to try to eliminate a sleep debt, plan for it to take weeks or even a month or more.  Start by going to sleep when you’re tired and getting up when you’re refreshed.  Because we all have work and family responsibilities, it would be a good idea to get started on your days off or even during a vacation.  Expect to sleep as much as 10 hours each night at the start, particularly if you have a high sleep debt.  Like paying off a monetary debt, paying off a sleep debt can take a change in your lifestyle.  Stop staying up for “one more TV show” or spending an extra hour on Facebook or Twitter because there’s an interesting conversation going on.  The short term sacrifices are worth it for better long term health.

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