Debunked: ‘You Can Catch up on Lost Sleep’

By Mario Esposito
Last Updated: August 13, 2018

We learn about this myth very early in our lives, and carry it with us every day. “I’ll sleep in on Saturday and Sunday,” you tell yourself; as you burn the candle at both ends during exam weeks in school, during days and nights leading up to big presentations for work, even during jam-packed holiday getaways filled with adventures and planned activities. Exhausted, you sleep six hours or less, then wake up to your alarm—again and again, from Monday to Friday. Your mornings keep getting worse; your grogginess lasts longer, your attention span suffers, and you’re just not in the best of moods. Sometimes you even catch yourself napping during the day, and you don’t really feel that much better upon waking up.

The weekend arrives and you finally get a chance to sleep. You barely get out of your bed, skipping breakfasts and waking up just in time for late lunches. Monday comes around too quickly, but you feel like you’re ready for it, having caught up on sleep over the past two nights. What’s wrong with this picture?

What Is Sleep Debt?

The idea that you “borrow” the extra time you spend awake during weeknights—only to pay it back with more shuteye during weekends—is called sleep debt. Unlike like most debts, though, repaying your body with more sleep won’t get you back to baseline; even if it feels like it. What’s dangerous about sleep debt is that we often don’t think of it as a big deal because we think we make up for it, and it doesn’t feel as intense as continuous sleep deprivation. For example, it’s common sense to think that staying up for 24 hours straight is unhealthy; but sleeping a little less each night and staying up even later for special occasions sounds normal to most people. However, it should be pointed out that ideal sleep health—and all the benefits that come with it—demands a regular sleep pattern. Apart from getting at least seven hours of sleep every night, bedtimes and waking up times should remain constant.

When you sleep in after a week of accumulating sleep debt, you may feel better afterward; but your alertness, focus, performance, and productivity won’t be at their best. You are, in essence, giving your body the sleep it needs, but not really fixing your sleep pattern. You already know this; everyone’s experienced sleeping in, waking up late in the day, and then having trouble sleeping at night until it’s way past their usual bedtime. And when you keep on repeating the cycle of weeknight sleep deprivation and catching up on sleep debt during weekends, long term effects—increased potential for heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity and more—will start to show. In other words, catch-up sleep a quick fix, but it won’t work for long.

It is imperative that you take care of your sleep debt properly. This may come as a shock to you, especially if you’ve always slept a little less than you should, but your body is most likely not working at peak performance. We’ve all experienced that superhuman feeling that comes after a good night’s sleep; we all have those precious days when we have no worries or stress carried over from the past day, we get the correct number of rest hours, and we just spring out of bed—full of vim and vigor. When you erase your sleep debt, you have the chance to feel a little bit like that every day! With a well-rested mind and body, your mental and physical capabilities will improve dramatically.

If Catch-Up Sleep Doesn’t Work, What Does?

Instead of thinking about the problem in terms of a debt that needs to be repaid in full, think of it as an ideal you are working toward. Your end goal is to get your body used to a normal sleep pattern and routine; to go to bed when you are tired and to wake up naturally after you get enough rest.

To accomplish this, you need to commit to an earlier bedtime during the week. Every person is different, but typically seven or eight hours is the norm. If you need to wake up at six in the morning to get ready for work or school, for example, go to bed at 10:30 PM so you can aim to fall asleep in the next 30 minutes after that. Resist the urge to stay up, even for important things like a deadline you have to beat, or a special occasion. If it’s unavoidable, you can make up for it by taking an early afternoon power nap the next day—but don’t let the small change affect the pattern you are trying to establish. Don’t make up for a late night by sleeping in the next day or during the weekend. The idea is to keep the same sleep schedule every day; it will take weeks or even months before your body fully adjusts, but when it does, you will feel the difference.

The best time to fix your sleep pattern and get rid of your sleep debt is when you don’t need to wake up at a certain time each day. If you have a long holiday coming up, or vacation leave piling up at work, take advantage of the time given. Listen to your body and go to sleep each night when you are tired, hopefully at the same time each night, and then allow yourself to wake up naturally—no alarm clocks allowed! For people with sleep onset issues, sometimes sleep aids work; but do consult your doctor or preferably a sleep specialist before trying out this solution.

If you are chronically sleep-deprived and accustomed to handling sleep debt incorrectly, you may find yourself sleeping 10 or more hours in the beginning—similar to when you play catch-up on the weekends. Gradually, though, you will find that you are sleeping the same amount of hours each night and waking up at the same time each morning. This is your body showing you the sleep pattern it needs to maintain for maximum performance and efficiency. All that’s left to do after this is make small adjustments so you can maintain the same pattern in your daily life.