Can You Catch Up on Lost Sleep?

Posted by Nicole on November 10

All week, you’ve been slogging through work on four hours of sleep. Crunch time has kept you from leaving the office, and you’ve been tossing and turning fitfully in a sleeping bag under your desk.

The project will be done at the end of the week, and you are free to go home for the weekend. All you can think is, “Finally, I’ll be able to sleep in until noon and catch up on all of this lost sleep!”

But can you actually catch up on lost sleep? Or is that a myth?

Sleep Debt is Real

First of all, you are not imagining that your accumulated sleep deficit has accumulated effects.

The amount of lost sleep you have forgone is called your “sleep debt.” You know all too well how it feels to have a backlog of sleep debt. It can cause you to feel physically and mentally exhausted, which may sometimes come with a slew of other unpleasant symptoms (i.e. headaches or anxiety).

What Does Research Say About Catching Up on Lost Sleep?

As it turns out, researchers have gone back and forth on the question of whether you can “catch up” on lost sleep.

Time says, “Experts have long said that you can’t make up for lost sleep by snoozing more on your days off. But in 2018, a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research called that conclusion into question, suggesting that sleeping in on days off could cancel out at least some of the health risks associated with work-week sleep deprivation, including the threat of early death.”

Time continues, “But a study recently published in Current Biology echoes previous convictions. It says extra weekend rest is not enough to make up for sleep lost during the week, and concludes that the ‘benefits of weekend recovery sleep are transient.’”

Not only that, but if you wake up at different times from one day to the next, you could disrupt your circadian rhythms, leading to other issues with sleep.

The article quotes Dr. Cathy Goldstein, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center, as suggesting, “The light exposure in the morning right after your sleep period is what we think is most important for keeping those regular biological rhythms going. If you do need to log some extra hours, a midday nap might be better.”

Another consideration is that if you use weekend catch-up sleep as a way of excusing a chronic lifestyle problem, you are ultimately going to be doing more harm than good.

Regularly skipping hours of sleep each week is ultimately going to take a toll on your health, even if you attempt some catch-up sleep on the weekends.

So, think about addressing the underlying problems with your lifestyle if they exist. In some cases, that might mean it is time for a change of work or different priorities.

Weekend catch-up naps may be the solution for the occasional lost night of sleep, but in the long run, they cannot substitute for a healthy lifestyle in situations of chronic sleep loss.