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Sleep Debt: Is It Ever Possible To Make Up For Lost Sleep?

Sleep Debt: Is It Ever Possible To Make Up For Lost Sleep?

Many people eagerly await the weekend to catch up on lost sleep. But as soon as it’s over, they find themselves even more sleep deprived, groggy, and generally miserable. This is because sleepless nights add up, resulting in sleep debt. In essence, if you don’t sleep enough, you’re going to go into debt.

Ideally, adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But most people simply don’t manage that. The 2020 Puffy Sleep Survey found that 59% of respondents sleep less than 6 hours every night, far below the recommended average.

Sleep debt arises as a result of a prolonged lack of sleep. Since sleep deprivation can have devastating effects on your physical and mental health, it’s essential to fix your sleep schedule. Here, we take an in-depth look at the dangers of sleep debt and how to overcome it.

Table of Contents

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt, also referred to as sleep deficit, refers to the difference between the amount of sleep you need and what you get. Perhaps the easiest way to understand sleep debt is to think of it in financial terms. The less sleep you get, the more you owe your body.

For instance, if you only get around 5 hours of sleep during the week, then you’ll have three hours of sleep debt every single day. By the time it's the weekend, you will have racked up 15 hours of lost sleep in a single week, making it nearly impossible to feel like you’ve gotten sufficient rest.

Perhaps the worst part about sleep debt is that it’s easy to accumulate — and don’t worry, you’re not the only person who stays up binging Netflix until the wee hours of the morning.

According to a survey published in the National Library of Medicine, the respondents who slept for an average of 5.5 hours per night watched more TV than the average sleeper. Other common reasons for shorter sleep durations include work, travel time, socializing, and engaging in other relaxing and leisurely activities.

Can You Catch Up on Sleep?

Can You Catch Up on Sleep? | Puffy

The short answer is no. There are few things better than sleeping in on a Saturday when you have nowhere to be and nothing to do, but the unfortunate reality is that it might not help you feel well-rested.

Research shows that sleeping in for a few extra hours during the weekend won’t help you make up for missed sleep. The strategy of catching up on lost sleep fails when you rack up a significant sleep debt. The reason for this is fairly straightforward to understand: For every hour of sleep you miss, you need a full night’s rest to recover.

For instance, if you only sleep for 5 hours on one of the weekdays, you would need 3 nights of the recommended 8 hours of sleep to catch up on lost sleep. However, if you’ve been neglecting your sleep hygiene for a while now, then it will take you much longer to pay off your sleep debt.

By practicing healthy sleep hygiene habits and following the right habits, it is possible to feel reenergized, but it’s certainly not something that can be fixed over a weekend.

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The Effects of Sleep Debt

The Effects of Sleep Debt | Puffy

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, then you know that the morning after is usually a disoriented blur. Chronic sleep debt can feel infinitely worse. Not only is it going to make you feel unfocused and exhausted, but it can also be detrimental to your health. Here, we break down some of the effects of sleep deprivation on your health.

Affects brain health

Your brain needs adequate sleep to help you learn and process new information, retain memories, and make informed decisions. In fact, while you’re sleeping, your brain continues to work overtime, carrying out duties that are required for optimal brain health. But in addition to improving mental performance, sleep is also essential for flushing toxins from the brain.

The detoxification happens during slow-wave sleep, which is one of the deep sleep stages. The electrical signals known as slow waves actually appear in your brain right before a wave of cerebrospinal fluid washes into the brain. This fluid is responsible for disposing of waste proteins that build up in your brain when you’re awake. Sleep is considered essential for brain health because these waste proteins can be toxic to the brain cells and may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases.

Weakens immune function

There’s a reason why doctors advise you to rest up when you’re sick — your body needs sufficient rest to recuperate from the illness. But the inverse is also true. If you don’t get enough sleep, then you’re likely to fall sick faster. Not getting enough sleep can lower your body’s immunity, making you more susceptible to illnesses, such as the common cold, sinus infection, fever, and more.

While you’re sleeping, your body produces proteins known as cytokines. The main role of cytokines is to protect your body from infections. Though it certainly sounds like a good thing, it’s worth noting that the production of cytokines is contingent upon whether you get sufficient sleep.

If your sleep debt is significant and you continue to neglect your rest, your body will begin to decrease its production of cytokines. In addition to falling sick faster, the worst part about a weakened immune function is that your recovery time also slows down.

Impairs judgment

Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to accurately interpret events, conversations, and even emotions. Several studies have been conducted over the years to determine exactly how lack of sleep can impair judgment.

One study found that people had a tougher time recognizing certain facial emotions when they were sleep-deprived. Participants who were suffering from lack of sleep were able to identify intensely negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and disgust, but their ability to recognize facial expressions of subtle sadness and happiness was impaired.

According to lead researcher William D.S. Kilgore, emotions such as fear and anger can be indicative of a threat. However, recognizing emotions such as happiness and sadness is less necessary for our survival. In a way, the impairment that’s observed in the study also relates back to brain health. When people are sleep-deprived, there is a disconnect between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which is associated both with the body’s fight or flight response and triggering emotional responses.

Ages skin

After just one night of little to no sleep, you might’ve noticed that your skin looks duller, dryer, and redder, which goes to show that beauty sleep is very much a real thing. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces more cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. An increase in cortisol levels is known to suppress the DHEA, the hormone responsible for slowing down the aging process.

In addition to developing premature wrinkles, sleep deprivation also means that your skin is more susceptible to inflammation. When inflammation becomes chronic, it can break down collagen, a protein responsible for skin strength, elasticity, and strengthening blood vessels. Without collagen, your skin can lose its elasticity, which means you’re more prone to developing conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema.

Causes weight gain

When you’re running on low sleep, chances are that you’ll find yourself craving the greasiest, most unhealthy foods. The truth is that when you’re confronted with significant sleep debt, you’ll likely turn to food for comfort and energy. This is because sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels, also known as the hunger hormone, and suppresses leptin, the hormone that’s responsible for controlling your appetite.

High ghrelin levels can make you crave foods that are high in fat, sugar, and carbs, leading to eventual weight gain. Not only that, but your metabolism takes a hit, meaning it becomes tougher to lose weight.

Chronic health problems

Sleep deprivation can also have a severe health impact and increase your risk of developing chronic medical conditions, such as:

How to Get Rid of Sleep Debt

How to Get Rid of Sleep Debt | Puffy

We’ve already established that sleeping in on the weekends is an ineffective way to get rid of sleep debt, but what else can you do? The answer to this question is fairly simple: You just have to make a conscious effort to get more sleep.

This may be easier said than done, especially if you have a demanding work schedule, a newborn to take care of, or just can’t bring yourself to go to bed at a decent hour. But to ensure you don’t face any health consequences, it’s important to make sleep a priority in your life sooner rather than later. Here are some tips to help you get rid of sleep debt and fight daytime sleepiness.

1. Establish a consistent sleep schedule

The best way to regulate your internal body clock is to set a bedtime and wake-up time and stick to it every day. Even on the weekends, try to maintain the routine of waking up at your usual time. This way, you won’t oversleep and struggle to go to bed at a decent time.

2. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in your system for up to 10 hours, so it’s best to switch to a decaf version of your favorite latte when it’s late in the afternoon.

On the other hand, alcohol is a depressant that can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but that doesn’t mean you’ll experience deep, restorative sleep. To ensure you’re able to enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep, it’s essential to stop drinking at least a few hours before bedtime. When you do drink, have a glass of water with each beverage to offset the dehydration.

3. Avoid screens

Screens emit a blue light, which can suppress the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. To help you fall asleep faster, try to avoid all screens at least an hour or two before bedtime.

4. Be mindful of when you eat

Eating a heavy meal before bed is generally just a recipe for heartburn, indigestion, and sleeplessness. Ideally, you should save your biggest meals for breakfast and lunch and eat something light for dinner. If you opt for a heavier meal, be sure to at least three hours before you plan to go to bed.

5. Avoid napping too much

If you tend to nap for an hour or longer, you’re napping wrong. According to NASA, the ideal nap length is 26 minutes. It’s long enough that you can gain a boost of energy and fight sleepiness but short enough that it won’t interfere with your sleep at night.

6. Get cozy

To get the best night’s sleep, it’s essential to invest in the most comfortable mattress. If you’re on the hunt for a new one, a hybrid mattress is a great choice because it combines the support of traditional innerspring with the contouring comfort of memory foam.


Is sleep debt real?

Yes. Sleep debt occurs when you don’t get the recommended amount of sleep that your body needs. Even one hour of lost sleep can take a whole night’s proper rest to recover. This is the reason why you may not feel well-rested if you try to catch up on lost sleep during the weekend.

How do you know if you have sleep debt?

Sleep debt can be similar to sleep deprivation symptoms. Some of the warning signs of sleep debt include excessive daytime sleepiness, moodiness, fatigue, a loss of or increase in appetite, anxiety, irritability, and brain fog.

When does sleep debt occur?

Sleep debt occurs when you don’t get the required amount of sleep that your body needs. Because you need a full night’s rest to make up for even an hour of lost sleep, it can be challenging to overcome sleep debt.

What happens if you have sleep debt?

Even short-term sleep debt can be detrimental to your overall well-being. Insufficient sleep can cause accidents, impair decision-making, and make it difficult to concentrate on tasks. In the long term, sleep debt can cause serious health conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.


Amid the hustle and bustle of our daily routines, it’s easy to put sleep on the backburner. But doing so can rack up a sleep debt and make it next to impossible to feel your best, especially if the cycle continues. That’s why it’s essential to take a step back and adopt lifestyle changes that’ll help you course-correct.

Your Turn...

Do you have sleep debt? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.

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