Parents — especially new parents — often walk around like sleep-deprived zombies. We commiserate with one another over midnight wakers and early risers who rob us of precious slumber. We post pics to social media of our slipper-clad feet … at work, because somehow we left the house without putting on real shoes. We talk about “catching up” on sleep via stolen afternoon naps or weekend sleep-in sessions during which we give our children free reign on fully charged tablets and a basket of breakfast snacks set out on the counter the night before like a “Hunger Games” cornucopia. Battle it out over the last Pop-Tart, kids, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
But … can we catch up on sleep? Is that a thing? I remember reading about “sleep deficits” when my 15-year-old was a sleepless infant and I was desperately researching sleep in an effort to find a way to get some. I guarded my sleep like a dragon guarding its treasure.
A sleep deficit is exactly what it sounds like — an accumulated lack of sleep that can be summed up in hours. If you function best with eight hours of sleep but for the last couple of nights have gotten only six hours of sleep per night, you have accumulated a four-hour sleep deficit. But can that missing sleep be earned back?
Catching Up On Sleep: It’s Complicated
The topic of “catching up on sleep” has come and gone in the media over the years, with headlines flipping back and forth between “Yes, You Can” and “No, You Can’t.” One of the first articles that pops up with a Google search cites a JAMA study and asserts that catch-up sleep does not improve symptoms of a sleep deficit. But that study was not actually published in JAMA; it was in Current Biology, and it targeted specific metabolic effects of prescribed sleep deprivation.
The study was narrowly defined, and sleep deficits experienced by the participants were much greater than the “catch-up” sleep prescribed. Over the course of a week, the sleep-deprived group accumulated a minimum of 20-hours of sleep deficit compared to the adequate sleep group. Then they were told they could sleep as long as they wanted to on the weekends.
Never mind that a 20-hour sleep debt cannot realistically be repaid in one weekend, but the researchers in this study were analyzing metabolic changes, not general symptoms of sleep deprivation. Yet this study has been cited again and again as evidence that it’s impossible to catch up on sleep.
So … Can We Catch Up On Sleep Or Not?
The short answer is, “It depends.” That’s because, like so many topics having to do with our health and well-being, there are countless variables at play. How big is the sleep deficit? Are we talking about missing a couple of hours of sleep per night for the last few days, as in the example above, or are we talking six months of never sleeping more than three hours at a time?
And, when you do try to catch up, do you repair short-term effects like feeling drowsy and cranky with an hour-long nap after lunch and then still manage to hit the hay at a reasonable bedtime that evening? Or do you take a four-hour nap late in the afternoon, after which you drink a cup of coffee and lie awake until 4 a.m. regretting your life choices?
The simplest way to look at it is: short-term sleep deprivation yields short-term effects, which, yes, can be corrected by adding sleep, aka, “catching up.” Going to bed earlier for a few nights, sleeping in on the weekend, or taking a nap can absolutely restore your energy and clear your head.
But long-term, or chronic, sleep deprivation can have a profound impact on a person’s well-being, both physiological and psychological. You can’t simply “catch up” on sleep when you haven’t been sleeping well for months or years.
How To “Catch Up” After Short-Term Sleep Loss
Ever had a bad night’s sleep, felt like crap, then took a nap and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the day? Congratulations, you have experienced “catching up” on sleep. If your overall sleep routine is a healthy one, a night or three of crappy sleep can be quickly repaired by, yes — getting extra sleep.
Our circadian rhythms are finicky though, and there are better ways than others to catch up on missed sleep. Sleeping in can help you restore missed sleep, but sleeping in too late can throw off your circadian rhythms, causing you to go to bed later. And if you have to get up early the following morning, you aren’t really catching up on sleep — the extra hours of morning sleep are a wash.
Taking a nap is a great way to catch up on sleep, but naps are best if taken earlier in the day, ideally between 2 and 4 p.m, since that’s when we have a natural dip in energy anyway. Taking a nap too late in the day can interfere with your bedtime, negating the extra sleep you got from your nap.
How To “Catch Up” After Long-Term Sleep Loss
Repairing the effects of chronic sleep debt is more complicated than sleeping in or taking a nap. Long-term sleep loss is linked to potentially serious health issues, from insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, heart disease, and stroke. Feeling better when you’re suffering from a long-term sleep debt requires a restoration of healthy sleep patterns — a general life change that you sustain long-term.
This can be tricky. Some people suffer with sleep disorders or mental health issues that interfere with sleep, or they have children who sleep poorly and keep them awake. Some people work shifts that regularly disrupt what would otherwise be a consistent sleep schedule. It’s not always as simple as laying your head on the pillow at 10 p.m.
But if your chronic sleep debt is due to regularly staying up scrolling TikTok long past a reasonable bedtime and you know darn well it’s making you feel like a muddled mess on the daily, you are a candidate for repairing your sleep routine and feeling better. A nap here and there can perk you up temporarily, but it’s not going to undo the long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation. You need to prioritize regular, adequate sleep.
So, yes, it is possible to catch up on sleep, but it depends on the severity of your sleep debt. And if you’re honestly trying to get good sleep but you find yourself lying awake night after night, talk to your doctor about finding ways to ensure you’re getting enough shut-eye. You deserve to feel like a human being, and not a sleep-walking zombie.
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