Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sleeping in on Saturday only helps so much.

By Jamie Harrison
March 29, 2021
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Sure, you know the importance of a good night's rest (strengthened immune system, better mood, improved memory, the list goes on). But actually scoring the recommended seven to nine hours can often seem like a pipe dream, especially when binging Bridgeton into the wee hours of the a.m. feels so damn good. And while you watch the clock tick past what should be your bedtime, you think to yourself, "Eh, I'll just sleep late on the weekend and make up for it then."

Unfortunately, however, making up for lost sleep — or what experts have dubbed as "sleep debt" — is not that easy. So, the question everyone is wondering: Can you really catch up on sleep? Ahead, the answer, according to experts and research.

First, What Is Sleep Debt, Exactly?

Also known as a sleep deficit, "sleep debt is an accumulated need for sleep," says Meredith Broderick, M.D., sleep specialist and founder of Sound Sleep Guru. Whether the cause is too many late nights of Netflix or a condition such as sleep anxiety, sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they actually get. For example, if your body needs eight hours of sleep per night to feel and function its best, but only gets six, you've accumulated two hours of sleep debt, according to the Sleep Foundation. (Related: Should You Be Sleeping With Your Socks On?)

With each night of shortened shuteye, your sleep debt accumulates, reflecting the sum of all the hours of sleep you've missed. And the more slept debt you accrue, the more likely you are to experience negative side effects, such as sleep deprivation and the mental and physical consequences that can come with it (from worsened concentration, anxiety, and depression to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease).

After neglecting a night between the sheets (aka acute sleep deprivation), it's possible to slowly repay sleep debt by getting an extra hour or two of shut eye for the following one or two nights. But chronic sleep deprivation (defined as getting less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep per night over an extended time period) is harder to remedy.

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Credit: We Are/Getty

So, Can You Catch Up On Sleep?

"In the short-term, yes," says Dr. Broderick. "In the long term, it depends, and it isn't always possible to recover completely."

Meaning, you can technically pay off a recent sleep debt, but if you've been falling short on shuteye for a few months or even a year, you're not going to be able to catch up on all those lost zzz's. So, yes, sleeping in on a Saturday a.m. after a restless night on Thursday or Friday might actually be an effective way to catch up on recently lost sleep. And the same is true for weekend naps: A quick 10- to 30-minute snooze can be refreshing while a longer, hours-long nap can be particularly helpful in recovering lost sleep. Head's up, though: The longer the nap, the more likely you are to wake up feeling groggy, according to Sleep.org. (Related: This Is the Best Nap Length for Good Sleep)

Before you use this as an excuse to nap at your desk or sleep Saturday away, it's important to note that a few random siestas when you're short on sleep may only offer a false sense of recovery. Sure, you might feel a little better upon waking up, but accumulated sleep loss or debt takes way longer to repay. Research shows that it can take up to four days (!!) to recover from just one hour of lost sleep.

And that said, proceed with caution when trying to make up for lost sleep. "Catching up on weekends is a double-edged sword," notes Dr. Broderick. "It can help fill a sleep debt, but if the person is catching up by sleeping in later, then they are also creating a secondary problem called 'social jetlag.' We call it social jetlag because it's similar to travel jet lag where the body's circadian rhythm [your body's internal clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle] is being shifted. This degrades the quality of sleep, so the best solution is to get the right amount of sleep every night."

The Best Way to Catch Up On Sleep

Of course, logging the recommended amount each night is easier said than done, which is why Dr. Broderick recommends creating an effective sleep-wake schedule to best catch up on sleep after accumulating a chunk of sleep debt. "The fundamental first step to creating a balanced sleep-wake schedule [a pattern that determines when it's time to sleep and when it's time to be awake] is to get out of bed at the same time every day," she says. "If you're disciplined about that, Mother Nature will make a lot of the other steps fall into place."

Translation: by following a consistent sleep-wake schedule, you're helping train (or, in the case of sleep debt, retrain) your body and brain to follow social and environmental cues (i.e. sunlight) and, in turn, score the necessary amount of sleep each night to help make up for any recent sleep debt and prevent accumulating more in the future. And therefore (hopefully) eliminating the issue of sleep debt and catching up on sleep altogether.

Here are some other ways to help maximize your nightly shuteye and, in turn, help bring your body back to a baseline after racking up sleep debt.

Create a relaxing vibe. Establishing a calming bedroom environment that's conducive for falling asleep and staying asleep is a key part of healthy sleep hygiene, which can enable quality rest night after night. Here's how: Keep temperatures cool, reduce noise and light (this includes blue light from devices!), and engage in a calming activity such as taking a bath, reading a book, or even meditating to help unwind before bedtime. (Related: This Bedtime Routine Uses Yoga for Sleep So You Can Have a More Restful Night)

Remember to move your body on the reg. Working out is great for your body and mind — and it can also help you get a good night's sleep. In fact, research has shown that physical activity can be as effective as prescription sleep meds, according to Cleveland Clinic. Not only does it tire you out, but exercise can also effectively relieve stress and anxiety — two things that often wreak havoc on shuteye. Just be sure to save high-intensity workouts for the morning or early afternoon and opt for yoga, walking, or biking if you're an evening exerciser, as exercising intensely late in the day can interfere with your ability to fall sleep, says sleep medicine psychologist Michelle Drerup, PsyD. Drerup also advises against consuming caffeine after lunch, eating super-heavy dinners, and reaching for the alcohol before bed. (Related: The Sleep and Exercise Connection That Can Change Your Life and Your Workouts)

Talk to your doc. If you still find yourself struggling with getting adequate shuteye nightly and accruing sleep debt, be sure to consult your doctor. Your GP or a sleep specialist can help determine what's causing your sleep struggles and the best solutions to get the rest you need.