Sleep Debt: Is It Real?

Is it possible to truly "catch up" on sleep over the long-term?

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Getting through the day on a poor night’s sleep is brutal. You feel groggy and foggy-brained, it’s hard to muster momentum, and it can even affect your mood. Studies have shown that when sleep quality is consistently poor, these symptoms can become exacerbated and even negatively impact our long-term memory and decision-making skills.

“In addition to physical and mental health, sleep—or lack of it—affects how we make decisions, our judgment, our motivation, our outlook, our communication, and our productivity. Even our coordination is diminished with lack of sleep,” notes Terry Cralle, RN, a registered nurse and expert for the Better Sleep Council. 

When lack of sleep becomes the norm, this leads to “sleep debt.” Ahead, we’re explaining what sleep debt is and whether sleep is something you can truly “catch up” on in order to feel rested.

What Is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt refers to the difference between the amount of sleep your body needs and the amount you are actually getting.

Think of sleep as a credit for the brain. When you’re chugging along and getting adequate sleep, your bank account is in the green. When you start sleeping less, though, your bank account begins dwindling. If this trend continues, you can accrue sleep debt. To reduce this debt, you need to pay it forward with more sleep, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).

The CDC says that adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, and that teens should get eight to 10 hours. Younger children need even more sleep than this, depending on their age. School-age children require nine to 12 hours, and preschoolers should aim for 10 to 13 hours.

“It takes less than 72 hours to see the consequence of lack of sleep on mental and physical health, and the only way to recover from lost sleep is sleep,” says Allison Brager, MD, a neurobiologist with expertise in sleep and circadian rhythms. “No amount of caffeine or stimulation can mirror or mask the consequences of sleep deprivation.” 

Dr. Brager warns that, over time, chronic sleep debt may contribute to more serious health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart and other organ diseases, and even cancer. 

Signs You’ve Accrued Sleep Debt

So how can you tell if you're dealing with sleep debt? Here are some common signs to look out for:

  • Drowsiness 
  • Foggy brain or muddled thinking 
  • Poor decision making 
  • Reduced concentration/attention span
  • Low energy levels
  • Feeling physically weak or lethargic 
  • Inability to remain alert 
  • Mood swings 
  • Poor memory  

Can You “Catch Up” on Sleep?

So, can sleeping in on weekends, going to bed earlier the following night, or taking naps actually make up for your accumulated sleep debt? The answer is a tentative 'yes' with some caveats. 

Dr. Brager says that in order to improve the chances of re-balancing your sleep bank account, you should “catch up” within three days of poor sleep. Once you’re past that three-day mark, she says it becomes difficult to resolve the sleep debt. 

To that end, even if you do end up normalizing your sleep, Cralle notes that some research has shown that it may not be possible to undo some of the damage caused by chronic sleep deprivation. For example, one study found that weekend catch-up sleep (CUS) can’t reverse the metabolic dysregulation and weight gain that can come with sleep loss.

Ultimately, avoiding sleep debt is the best plan of action for your overall health and well-being.

Tips for Catching Up On Sleep

Here are some ways you can get more sleep in the day(s) that follow a poor night of sleep. You can repeat these things daily, as needed, in order to catch up on sleep. 

  • Take a 15 to 60 minute nap (naps longer than this can potentially make you groggier) 
  • Go to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier than usual 
  • Reschedule your first meeting of the morning, if feasible, so you can sleep in
  • Skip the morning workout so you can sleep in

5 Ways to Improve Your Sleep Starting Tonight

A poor night’s sleep is bound to happen here and there, and you can recover from lack of sleep when proactive about catching up within three days. However, an ongoing pattern can lead to chronic deprivation and negatively impact your health and well-being.

Too many people get in the habit of yo-yo sleeping—chronically under-sleeping during the week and oversleeping on the weekends. Make time for sufficient sleep every day of the week.

  • Look at Your Patterns: Reassess your current schedule and see where you can better manage time or reduce obligations to prioritize sufficient sleep. 
  • Enforce a Media Curfew: “Turn off electronics before bedtime and avoid checking your phone if you get up in the middle of the night,” says Cralle. 
  • Avoid Caffeine After Noon: Caffeine can keep you wired past bedtime, making it difficult to get to sleep. Avoid a cycle of caffeinating all day to stay awake because you got poor sleep the night before.  
  • Improve Sleep Hygiene: Dim lights an hour before bedtime, remove TVs from your bedroom, and make sure bedding is clean and comfortable. 
  • Create a Bedtime Routine: Kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from a consistent routine. “Perhaps just stretch, mobilize, and/or meditate prior to falling asleep,” suggests Dr. Brager. This routine might also include things like reading a book, taking a hot shower, or journaling.

A Word From Verywell

We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and this time is crucial to our overall body function, physical health, and mental well-being. Sleep regulates everything from our emotions to our decision-making abilities, replenishes energy reserves, and gives our bodies time to recover so our organs function well. Prioritize consistently good sleep every night and do your best to catch up on a poor night’s sleep as soon as you’re able.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 3(5), 553–567.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Sleep debt."

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much sleep do i need?

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.