Expert Tips to Help You Catch Up On Missed Sleep

Good news: it is possible to make up for low levels of sleep debt after all.
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Good news: it is possible to make up for low levels of sleep debt after all.
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Art Credit: Nima Salimi

When was the last time you consistently got the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night? With the fast-paced schedule of life, it can be all too easy to skimp on much-needed rest. However, over time a lack of sleep can catch up with you and result in what is known as “sleep debt”: the numbers of hours of sleep you should have gotten minus the number of hours you actually got. Sleep debt has been linked to a number of health risks, including high blood pressure, foggy brain, obesity, and difficulty concentrating.

The good news is that it is possible to make up for low levels of sleep debt—and in the process, reverse some of the negative effects it can contribute to. Here are a few expert-recommended tips to help you catch up on sleep if you find yourself coming up short.

01. Go to bed earlier on weekends (instead of sleeping in).

It can be tempting to think that you'll catch up on the weekends to make up for any sleep you’ve lost during the week. And if you’ve only lost about five hours of sleep during the week, you actually can make up for it on the weekends, says Dr. Raghu Reddy, pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. But here’s the catch: sleeping in for more than an hour can disrupt your circadian rhythm and can make waking up on Monday more difficult, according to sleep medicine specialists at the University of Texas Southwestern. Instead of sleeping in on weekends, go tobed earlier to catch up. That way, you don’t risk disrupting your natural alarm clock during the week. However, if you are dealing with a long pattern of sleep debt, it could take months to make up for the effects of lost sleep.

02. Spread out the difference.

Lawrence J. Epstein, MD, director of the Sleep Medicine Fellowship Program at Harvard Medical School, recommends adding an hour or two to each night of sleep until you catch up on the sleep you lost. For example, if you lost a total of five hours of sleep last week (an hour per night, Monday through Friday), add an extra hour of sleep every night until you’ve caught up.  It can seem like a lot of planning is involved but your body will thank you in the long run.

03. Nap mindfully.

Napping can be a more effective alternative to sleeping in on the weekends. Schedule your nap for the same time every day, since your body thrives on routine, says Chris Winter, MD, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. And try limiting your nap to no more than 20 to 25 minutes to prevent falling into a deep sleep and waking up in a fog.  A short nap can help you avoid disrupting your body’s circadian rhythm while still catching up.

04. Stick to a routine.

Stick to the same sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends in order to avoid what researchers call “social jet lag”: changing sleep schedules to accommodate a busy social schedule on the weekend. Social jet lag disrupts your circadian rhythm and can leave you feeling drained Monday morning and at risk for many health problems. By going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day, you can avoid losing precious hours of sleep and will wake up feeling refreshed.

05. Get quality sleep. 

The good news is that, if we take the time to catch up on sleep, our bodies work with us to make the most of the extra sleep we are trying to get. Dr. Reddy says that, when catching up on lost sleep, our bodies will spend more time in the deep sleep and REM sleep stages than other sleep stages. To ensure that you are getting the best quality sleep, it can be helpful to avoid caffeine after 3pm, avoid bright lights before going to bed (that means not checking Pinterest on your phone right before you go to sleep!), and developing a bedtime ritual such as reading a book or listening to soothing music to signal your brain that it’s time for you to go to sleep.

While it can be easy to treat getting enough sleep as a luxury instead of a necessity, it actually plays a critical role in our health and well-being.  The next time you find yourself short a few hours of sleep, try these tips and you’ll be well on your way to making sleep a priority and enjoying the feeling of being well-rested.