What is sleep debt? Can you catch up on sleep?…FIND OUT!

Did you know that good quality sleep restores your body by allowing it to heal and letting the brain catalog information? Without quality sleep, you are likely to feel tired and moody throughout the day. You will also find it hard to concentrate on your daily tasks. Chronic lack of sleep is also linked to various health conditions [1], including depression, hypertension, obesity, impaired immunity, etc. If you are struggling with sleep debt, read on to find out how you can deal with the problem and avoid all the adverse effects caused by the lack of quality sleep.

What is Sleep Debt?

The variation between the amount of sleep you should get and what you get is called sleep debt [2] or deficit. This deficit often brings undesirable effects that affect your productivity and overall quality of life, especially if you experience a chronic sleep deficit. Recent study [3] results by the Center for Disease
Control and Prevention recommend all adult Americans between 18 and 60 years should get at least 7 hours of sleep daily. Therefore, if you sleep 5 hours a night, you get a sleep debt of 2 hours every day.

Types of Sleep Debt?

There are two types of sleep debt, and both have undesirable effects on the human body. The first is partial sleep debt/deprivation, while the second is total sleep debt/ deprivation. The latter happens when you remain awake for at least 24 hours. On the other hand, partial sleep debt occurs when you sleep for less than the recommended time for a few days or weeks.

Unfortunately, over a third of all American adults do not get the recommended amount of sleep regularly. As a result, they have sleep debt that should be handled before its effects on their overall well-being and health status become visible. While it is relatively easy to manage acute sleep debt, the same cannot be said about chronic sleep debt that is linked to chronic illnesses and health conditions.

What Causes Sleep Debt?

There are numerous causes of sleep debt [4] in the present-day world. Some of the reasons are voluntary, while others are involuntary.

Long Working/ Study Hours

Today, many adults are working longer hours to make enough money to run their households. Working longer shifts often means reduced sleeping time. Some careers also have night shifts, which can affect sleep patterns. Similarly, even college students are now sleeping less due to long study hours.

Conditioned Emotional Response

Chronic sleep debt happens usually because of conditioned emotional response, which is caused by overthinking about your sleep problems or feeling anxious whenever you are unable to sleep on time.

Voluntary Behaviors

Voluntary behaviors that cause sleep debt include reading books, socializing, watching television, or being on the phone or computer instead of sleeping. Lifestyle factors such as excessive intake of caffeine and other stimulants also affect your sleep-wake cycle.

Certain Illnesses

Some illnesses can also disrupt normal sleeping patterns causing wakefulness, gagging, snoring, or other symptoms that affect your normal sleep-wake cycle. People with sleep disorders also find it challenging to get adequate sleep.

Certain Medications

Some prescription or over-the-counter drugs disrupt sleeping patterns, thus causing sleep debt. Like medicines used to manage epilepsy.

Major Life Changes

Significant life changes, whether positive or negative, can interfere with sleep patterns. For instance, new parents are always sleep deprived because they are up all night taking care of their babies. Other changes include losing or changing a job, the death of a loved one, relocating to a new home, and others.

Environmental Factors

Unfavorable weather conditions can affect your sleep patterns. For instance, it may be challenging to get adequate sleep if it is too hot or cold.


People older than 65 tend to have irregular sleep-wake cycles due to advanced age complications. Not engaging in physical activities during the daytime can also make it hard for this group to sleep at night.

How to Avoid Sleep Debt

The best way to avoid sleep debt and its consequences are to ensure you sleep for the recommended amount of time each night. This way, you will not accumulate any sleep debt. However, this is not always possible due to various reasons. Most people think that sleeping longer on your day off or the weekend will automatically deal with sleep debt, but this is not always the case. We will explore various techniques that you can apply to prevent sleep debt.

Have a Sleep Schedule

You should always aim to sleep and wake up at a specific time. Having a schedule will help in prioritizing sleep over other activities that lead to sleep debt. If you need to change your schedule, make sure you do it gradually via 30 to 60-minute increments instead of making drastic changes.

Maintain a Nightly Routine

Although routines are mostly associated with children, having a nightly routine as an adult helps your body to relax and get ready for good-quality sleep. You can set the alarm 30 minutes to your bedtime to remind you to turn off electronics or dim the lights, for instance.

Be Mindful of Daytime Habits

If you are accumulating sleep debt, you should analyze what you do during the daytime and identify things that may make sleeping at night difficult. Avoid taking caffeinated drinks close to your bedtime, reduce screen time before your set sleeping time, and restrict the activities done in your bed to sex and sleep.

Improve Your Bedroom Environment

One of the simplest ways to avoid sleep debt is by optimizing your bedroom environment to make it conducive for sleeping. Ensure you block out unnecessary noises, replace any bedding that feels uncomfortable, and ensure the temperature is suitable for sleeping.

Recovering from Sleep Debt

Can you recover from sleep debt? Yes, you can, but you have to take necessary steps for that. You must realize that sleeping longer the following day or weekend to make up for missed sleeping hours is not all that it takes. It actually takes longer for your body to recover from sleep debt than recovering from a hard day’s work the same night. In fact, a recent study established that your body will require 4 days to make a full recovery from an hour of sleep debt. If you wish to recover from sleep debt, you can follow these tips to catch up on sleep and get back to a healthy sleep-wake pattern.

Have a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Building a consistent sleep schedule will help in resyncing the internal process that regulates your sleep–wake cycle, also known as your circadian rhythms. When you do this your body will get time to make a full recovery from sleep debt. Ensure you have set sleep and waking alarm times regardless of the day of the week.

Track Your Sleep Pattern

You can track your sleep pattern by keeping a diary of the patterns and habits that interfere with your sleep. This will help you to come up with suitable solutions.

Take Naps

Taking a nap will not replace the sleep you have lost. However, it will help you feel less tired during the day. Afternoon naps are crucial for people who work on shifts and have difficulty maintaining a consistent sleep schedule.

Be Patient and Give Yourself Time

As mentioned earlier, it takes some time to recover from sleep debt. You cannot expect to recover after a day or two of sleeping in. Instead, increase your sleep time gradually by adding 15-30 extra sleeping minutes at a time until your body gets the optimal amount of sleep. Always exercise patience as you improve your sleep hygiene.

Seek Medical Attention

If you are dealing with chronic sleep debt that affects your daily activities or is hard to resolve by yourself, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Ensure you discuss sleep disorders or other conditions that may interfere with your sleep. If necessary, the doctor will prescribe sleeping aids, such as ZzzQuil or NyQuil, to help you get better-quality sleep. You can also consult a sleep expert to help you discover the best sleeping positions for back pain and other problems, such as frequent crooked necks, and shoulder pain.

Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

Did you know that the longest recorded period you can live without sleep is a little over 11 consecutive days? 3 or 4 days of not sleeping will make you start hallucinating. The adverse effects of sleep debt or deprivation usually manifest within a short period. You can avoid these effects by ensuring you get adequate sleep every night. There are many benefits of getting sufficient sleep [5]. We have listed some of them below.

Clear and Sharper Brain

If you run low on sleep, you will experience difficulty concentrating, focussing on tasks, and recalling things. Adequate sleep plays a crucial role in memory, learning, and concentration. Getting enough sleep ensures your brain is alert and ready to store the required information.

Mood Boosting

Whenever you are asleep, the brain gets the chance to process emotions and reorganize information. Lack of adequate sleep usually makes you experience more negative emotions. If you sleep well, you are likely to have more positive emotions. Chronic sleep debt is associated with mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.

Enhanced Cardiac Function

Your blood pressure goes down whenever you are asleep. This helps your heart and blood vessels to get some rest. Staying up longer means your they do not get enough rest, and your blood pressure remains high for extended periods, which is unhealthy. By getting enough sleep, you build a healthier cardiac system.

Blood Sugar Regulation

Decreased sleep is associated with increased insulin resistance. Increased resistance means that your blood glucose levels will be elevated. Sleep deficit or deprivation is thus associated with diabetes because it renders the body unable to meet the cells’ needs and regulate blood glucose levels.

Improved Immunity

Getting sufficient sleep allows your immune system to identify pathogenic bacteria and viruses in your body, thus preventing illnesses. On the other hand, sleep deficit changes the immune cells’ functioning and predisposes you to diseases. Without enough sleep, the immune cells may fail to attack and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria.

Weight Control

A person who gets enough sleep feels less hungry and vice versa. If you are sleep-deprived, the hormones, leptin and ghrelin, that regulate appetite run haywire. Once the two are thrown off balance, you cannot resist the craving for unhealthy food. As a result, you will feel hungrier than usual, eat more calories than you require, and gain weight.


Sleep debt comes about when you get less sleep than you require for normal body functioning and productivity. While it is sometimes inevitable, the sleep debt can be prevented by adhering to a healthy sleeping schedule. If you experience sleep debt, there are tips and techniques to recover, but you will need time to make a full recovery. The best step to take is ensuring you get enough sleep each night to prevent the adverse health effects of a sleep deficit.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/dr/sleep-deprivation/sleep-debt
  2. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-debt-and-catch-up-sleep
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html
  4. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Causes-of-Sleep-Deprivation.aspx
  5. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/benefits-sleep-more
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