After a long week, a "sleep binge" might feel like just the thing to make you feel better. But experts caution that trying to "catch up" on sleep might actually be harming your health

By Laura Schwecherl for
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While yawns are indeed contagious, there's another reason why Americans often seem so sleepy. A global survey found the U.S. has one of the highest rates of sleep deprivation, which makes us wonder: Can we catch up on those lost zzz's?

Late to Bed, Early to Rise-Why It Matters

A good night's rest is just as important as all that happens during daylight. An adequate amount of sleep allows the body to rest and recharge so we're ready to tackle the day. It can also reduce stress and help us lose weight. Seven to nine hours of snoozing nightly should cut it, but studies show 35 percent of Americans don't get enough sleep-clocking in less than seven hours nightly.

Between around-the-clock careers to late-night study sessions (procrastination, anyone?), there's no shortage of reasons why people don't sleep enough. But The Debt isn't just a Hollywood thriller-sleep debt refers to the hours of sleep we should get minus the amount we actually get. Over time, sleep debt can add up, and the longer we go functioning on five hours of sleep (and maybe even downing a Four Loko or two), the harder it is to catch up on sleep. And no, sleeping for an entire weekend won't cut it, even if those holiday office parties make us rather sluggish.

Hurry Up and Slow Down!-The Answer/Debate

After neglecting a night between the sheets (a.k.a. acute sleep deprivation), it's possible to slowly repay sleep debt. (Student loans are another story.) An extra hour or two of sleep nightly is a foolproof remedy. But chronic sleep deprivation (defined as getting less than five hours of sleep per night over an extended time period) is harder to cure. In one study, people with acute sleep loss were focused and attentive after 10 hours of rest. Those with chronic sleep deprivation had problems staying alert even after the 10-hour snooze.

And research on chronic sleep deprivation is scary enough to jolt us without an espresso: The longer we go without getting enough sleep, the harder it is to realize we're tired. After a while, those double frappuccinos won't even be necessary-we won't know we're fatigued at all.

Since catching up on sleep becomes a tricky feat as our sleep debt accumulates, the best medicine for sleep loss is prevention. Forty-nine percent of Americans blame stress for losing sleep, so try taking some deep breaths and listening to music to calm the mind before bedtime. (Enya's never a bad choice.) To help call it a night, read a book while sipping on some herbal tea, and squeeze in some exercise earlier in the day! These little tricks will help us avoid counting all those sheep in bed and will make failing to catch up on sleep a thing of the past.

The Takeaway

It's possible to catch up on sleep if snoozing has slacked for a night or two. But the longer we go without catching enough Zzz's, the harder it is to get 'em back.

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