I’ve often comforted myself with the idea of catching up on missed sleep after a late night, promising myself a long nap over the weekend. The question however, is whether it’s even possible to make up for lost sleep?
What is sleep debt?
In essence sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting per night (8 hours per night is the recommended standard) and the amount you’re actually getting. Writing for the Scientific American Molly Webster points to a 2005 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation; which indicates that the average American sleeps about 6.9 hours per night – indicating that most US citizens lose about an hour of sleep each night and that figure adds up.
The effect of sleep debt on the body
Your brain is a finely tuned machine that runs on sleep so any sleep debt causes problems ranging from the annoying to the downright dangerous:
- Decreased concentration
- Impaired memory
- Loss of brain tissue
- Weight Gain
- A lack of emotional intelligence
- Increased irritability
- Less self-regulation
- Higher risk of stroke (with consistent sleep debt)
- A compromised immune system
Take a look at this infographic by Alissa Scheller that I’ve posted before for more on the effects of sleep debt on the brain and body.
How long does it take to pay off a sleep debt?
Part of the problem with sleep debt is that the greater it becomes, the harder it is to recognize and it seems that most of us are at least slightly sleep deprived (according to the Harvard Medical School more than 60% of women get less than 7 hours of sleep per night).
According to Christopher M. Barnes’ article “Working in our sleep: Sleep and self-regulation in organizations” (published in the Organizational Psychology Review), the effects of low quality sleep or poor sleep accumulates over time. He quotes a study in which participants were restricted to sleeping five hours per night for 7 consecutive days – with the predictable increase in mental exhaustion, stress, tension and confusion ensuing. Where it gets interesting is that they found it took two nights of full sleep (8 hours) to recover back to the established baseline. In other words it took two nights of eight hours of sleep to make up for the shortfall of the previous week.
In short it is possible to ‘make up’ for those late nights but it takes time and in the interim all the gremlins of too little sleep come into play; effectively decreasing our faculties and thus our performance. Surely it makes more sense not to get into debt in the first place and, if debt is unavoidable, to pay it off as soon as possible.