Can you catch up on the sleep that you lose? Does sleeping in late on the weekends and taking naps help make up for the hours you lose during the week?

And the verdict is — you can gain back the sense of being well rested but can’t reverse the consequences that come from lack of sleep.

Behavioral sleep medicine specialist Dr. Sarah Silverman told the Deseret News, “Trying to catch up on sleep may help to alleviate some daytime sleepiness in the short-term, but it’s not going to reverse the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.”

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Two types of sleep debt

Rise Science reported that there are two types of sleep debt that determine whether you can actually catch up on your sleep.

There is acute sleep debt, which you can recover from, and chronic sleep debt, which you are less likely to catch up on.

Acute sleep debt is a short-term lack of sleep and is described as “a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed compared to the amount of sleep your body needed.”

This type of sleep debt reportedly has an immediate effect on your health and people who are experiencing acute sleep can feel it through weakened immune system, motor skills, reaction time, mood and weight changes.

“You can catch up on sleep insomuch as if you had a late night one night, you can sleep earlier the next. But catch-up sleep doesn’t work if there is a late night and you try to sleep in the next day,” Dr. Nilong Vyas, a board-certified pediatric sleep coach, founder of family sleep consulting service Sleepless in NOLA and medical reviewer for Sleep Foundation told the Deseret News.

Chronic sleep debt is a long-term lack of sleep that is accumulated over years of not getting the full hours a particular person needs.

Harvard Health Publishing reported that there’s really no way to “cheat on sleep and get away with it,” as chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and even death are linked to getting little amounts of sleep for long amounts of time.

“I equate sleep loss to a skipped day at the gym. You can’t work out harder for a day after a few days of exercise are missed. Once gym days are ignored, they are gone, and the potential muscular gains may also be lost if too many days are skipped,” Vyas said. “Similarly, if sleep is lost one day, the same amount of sleep can not be regained the next. A nap can be taken or an earlier bedtime to re-regulate, but the amount of sleep lost is lost.”

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The myth of catching up on sleep

A 2020 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that trying to catch up on sleep by sleeping longer on weekends and taking naps does not fully help pay off sleep debt collected throughout the week.

The study took a nationwide sample and found:

  • 35.9% of people studied were sleeping less than six hours per night, and that the 27.7% who reported having “sleep debt” reported being in at least 90 minutes of sleep debt.
  • 75.8% of the people studied didn’t attempt to balance their sleep debt.
  • Of the people who attempted to balance their sleep debt, 18.2% of people chose to catch up on sleep during the weekends and 7.4% napped.

When asked if it is possible to reverse the side effects, Silverman said there are possibilities in short-term scenarios.

“On a very short-term basis, there is an acute recovery period of sleep that may help reverse any potential long-term negative effects. Instead of ‘catching up’ on the number of hours of sleep, it is typically the case that your brain will attempt to ‘make up’ for lost sleep with the more restorative stages of sleep,” Silverman said.

The Sleep Foundation reported that from recent research, it takes up to four days to make up for losing one hour of sleep and nine days to get rid of your sleep debt all together.

“When it comes to improving sleep, my motto is to keep things simple and consistent. If you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s important to prioritize your sleep as best as you can throughout the week.” — Dr. Sarah Silverman

“The most current research states up to several days are required to return the body to baseline after sleep debt is accrued. However, even after a week was given to study participants to catch up on sleep, the were not at optimal brain function,” Vyas said.

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What to do to improve your sleep

According to Silverman, better sleeping habits come from prioritizing it in a person’s life routine.

“When it comes to improving sleep, my motto is to keep things simple and consistent. If you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s important to prioritize your sleep as best as you can throughout the week. Ensure that you have enough opportunity to sleep, so you don’t need to try to ‘catch up,’” Silverman said.

Deseret News reported that something as simple as creating a routine of eating a bowl of “Sweet Dreams” cereal can help people create a soothing ritual to put them to sleep.

Along with a bedtime routine, it is vital to go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The best tips are the hardest to follow, even for a sleep expert such as myself. There are just too many fun things to do in the world. However, seeing a massive body of research pointing to the benefits of sleep, it is essential to give it the priority it needs,” Vyas said.