Catch-Up Sleep Myth

Whether you work long hours during the week, had to finish a paper or presentation, or had a crisis that required you to stay up most of the night, you want to try and make up for the missed hours of sleep. However, you can only catch up on a small amount of sleep.

Many individuals have tried catching up on their missed sleep. Whether you work long hours during the week, had to finish a paper or presentation, or had a crisis that required you to stay up most of the night, you want to try and make up for the missed hours of sleep. However, your sleep is not something that you can get back when you no longer have it. Sleep patterns are not banks where you can get back what you lost. You can only catch up on a small amount of sleep to be able to function correctly.

If you usually sleep for seven hours but for some reason you need to stay up one entire night, it will have consequences on your day, causing you to be less productive than usual, along with some physical effects that sleep deprivation causes. Because of all this, you might think getting more sleep the next night will fix everything. You will recover almost all of your deep sleep and a part of your REM sleep, but you will not recover your light sleep. Additionally, people might want to get more rest during their days off, to make up for the lost sleep, but there is no need to sleep the weekend away.

The limit for human wakefulness is around ten days, depending on the situation and the person. After that, the person goes to sleep and sleeps longer than usual, but without sleeping all the lost time. If you sleep for 7 hours each night and skip one night, you will want to sleep 14 hours the following night. But that is a terrible plan. Sleeping for 14 hours will do nothing. Your body is already compromised, and there is no way to make up for the entire amount of sleep. Instead, you can add an hour or two to make up for part of the shut-eye you lost.

Randy Gardner set the record for the longest time being awake at the age of 17. In 1965 he was awake for 11 days without getting any sleep, while under observation by researchers. After that, he slept for 15 hours straight on his first night of sleep and 11 hours on the second night. This is how you technically catch up on sleep, but it doesn’t really exist – you can not get the lost sleep back. The adverse health effects you get by skimping on sleep are not something you can reverse by overloading yourself with rest.


Negative Effects

Researchers have shown that routine sleep deprivation contributes to many health risks like diabetes and weight gain. Many studies have studied participants in a sleep laboratory by limiting them to a few hours of sleep to examine carefully the adverse effects that sleep deprivation can have. Participants in these studies experienced weight gain and metabolic disruption, both of which increase the risk for certain illnesses like diabetes. The recovery during the weekend after a week of not getting the adequate amount of rest had some benefits. But again, those benefits are easily wiped out when you go back to the same sleep-deprived schedule after recovery. These benefits of catch-up sleep are gone the moment you get back to the same routine, and your body and performance are severely affected the longer you maintain a schedule like that. While the benefits are short-term, the health risks are long-term. These studies aim to reinforce the fact that sleep is not a balance sheet where you can make up what you lost before. When rest deprivation is caused by sleep apnea, insomnia or any sleep disorder, it is a good idea to recover some of the shut-eye you lose until you feel normal again.

Our body has the natural ability to heal itself during sleep, even if there is sleep debt. By nature, the body tries to recover the lost REM and deep sleep as much as possible, but it is often at the expense of other sleep stages. The general opinion among experts is that seven to eight hours of sleep are the adequate amount for an individual. Of course, this can vary depending on genetics, health problems, and lifestyle. Some people can feel great after six hours of sleep, while others can feel terrible after eight.

Some of the symptoms you might experience due to lack of sleep are headaches, memory problems, inability to focus and concentrate, impaired vision and motor skills. If sleep deprivation continues these symptoms will get worse, and you can get chronic inflammation and be at an increased risk of illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or even early death.


Research about Catch-Up Sleep

Pennsylvania State University did a study in 2013 that tested if a weekend of sleep could help with reversing the symptoms. They tested the subjects to see their levels of cortisol, attention spans, daytime sleepiness, and inflammation. The daytime sleepiness was increased during the period of sleep restriction and then decreased after two nights of recovery sleep. The same thing happened to inflammation. The cortisol levels were the same during the period of sleep restriction but decreased after recovery sleep, which meant that the individuals were sleep deprived. However, the levels of attention and concentration severely dropped during those six sleep restricted nights and did not get better with three nights of recovery sleep. This result lead the researchers to conclude that extended recovery sleep impacts our biological factor, but our concentration needs more time to recover from multiple nights of sleep restriction or deprivation. But, these results were only short-term, and this study did not uncover the long-term effects. The key to recovering from too little rest is to get back your natural sleep pattern and follow it. For severe sleep deprivation, it will take a few months of recovery and catching up on sleep will be necessary.

A study of rest deprivation done by the University of Chicago had a similar situation. Their volunteers developed high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and high blood pressure. Additionally, this study provided information that the volunteers produced only half of the usual amount of antibodies to a flu vaccine. They also showed signs of insulin resistance, which is a condition that leads to type 2 diabetes if not treated. However, all of these problems were reversed when the students made up the lost hours of shut-eye. The Chicago study helped explain the impacts of chronic sleep debt, such as the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.


Advice for Avoiding Sleep Deprivation

As we mentioned before, our bodies have the natural ability to get back as much deep and REM sleep as possible. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per day; anything less will have an impact on your overall health. Falling behind sleep for ten hours or more requires you to gradually make up that lost time during the week by adding two or three hours to your usual sleep time. This requires you to go to bed earlier than usual and if possible squeeze in some extra time in the morning. While you work on this, you need to incorporate some good sleep habits that will improve your sleep quality, and your health as well.

Better sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is a combination of tools used to help restore restful sleep. It requires you to implement good sleep habits and maintain them, as they are beneficial for individuals who can’t stay asleep and fall asleep.

Have a regular sleep schedule

To properly orient and maintain your sleep rhythm you need to set a schedule that will include fixed times for going to bed and waking up. Make sure you have at least seven hours of rest per night. As time passes, your body and brain will by default feel tired or wake up at these times out of habit. For better implementation of the schedule, you can add activities that will later trigger your brain and body into going to sleep, for example, you can take a bath, brush your teeth, read a book, turn off your TV, phone, tablet and other devices.

The bedroom needs to be an optimal sleep environment

You need to create a sleep sanctuary. The bed needs to be reserved for sleep,  intimacy, and relaxation. No watching television, no stressful reminders, and unnecessary stuff. The bedroom needs to be a relaxing environment that is dark, cool, and quiet. Keep in mind that electrical devices do not belong in bedrooms, and if it is necessary for them to be there, you should place them at least a few feet from the bed. To block unwanted sounds you can get earplugs or a white noise machine, and for the light, you can get a mask or blackout curtains that will keep your bedroom extremely dark.

Reduce stress levels

You need to reduce your stress levels if you want to minimize the strain on your nervous system and heart. Daily exercise can help to burn off excess energy and stress. Also, as we previously mentioned, you need to avoid using any electronics an hour before bed because of their blue light that can provide the same effect on your brain as sunlight does.


Daytime exercise is an excellent way to make your body tired, which will make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. But do not exercise too late in the day, because the adrenaline can keep you up at night. You should aim to work out in the morning in order to expose yourself to daily light and start your day with an extra energy boost.

Eating healthy

Eating healthy food has been shown to promote sleep, and sugary junk food is terrible for sleep. By eating healthier, you will consume extra vitamins and proteins that will be beneficial when night comes. However, you need to be careful when you eat food and don’t eat or drink a few hours before bedtime. Especially avoid junk food, caffeine or alcohol. Alcohol may cause mid-night or early awakenings, while caffeine will keep you awake. Additionally, the consumption of nicotine and smoking can also have a severe and harmful effect on your sleep.


Taking naps during the day is not recommended in these cases. If there is a need for a nap, it should not be longer than thirty minutes. Night owls and night shift workers have a higher risk of developing sleep debt and usually try catching up on sleep they cannot possibly recover. Because of this, they nap for an hour or two, trying to supplement the missed hours, but these naps can interfere with your ability to sleep at night and completely reverse your sleep schedule.


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