Whether you’re prepping for an important work presentation, traveling, or simply finishing the latest season of your favorite show on Netflix, only sleeping four to six hours a night every now and again is totally normal. It may be tempting to take an extra-long nap the next day, or sleep in a few hours longer the following night to make up for lost time, but sleep experts say you can’t simply just catch up on sleep that you missed the night before.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults between the ages of 18 and 64 aim for seven to nine hours of slumber every night. But for many of us, even seven hours can be hard to come by, and every so often it's just not going to happen.
"After a bad night of sleep, we all typically feel distracted, and off our mental game. Most of my patients are surprised to learn just how broadly a lack of sleep affects their ability to think at their best," Dr. Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders, and the sleep expert for the meditation app, Calm, tells Bustle. "We’ve got billions of neural cells working on our behalf, enabling us to make decisions, [to] process information, [and to] focus on important information — and, [to] remember it down the road. Sleep deprivation slows that work down, compromising our mental performance."
Moreover, Dr. Eleanor McGlinchey, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a member of the Pajama Program's Good Night advisory council, says studies have shown it can increase your risk of developing depression, cardiovascular problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and other serious health issues.
Unfortunately, despite being a widespread myth, catching extra shuteye the next evening won't actually counteract or "undo" the effects of sleep deprivation from the night before. Dr. McGlinchey says, "Sleeping in does not really give you the same quality sleep, and can end up causing other problems to your sleep."
In fact, as the National Sleep Foundation reported, a 2010 Harvard Medical School study discovered that people who tried to sleep for 10 extra hours to "compensate" for a two-week period of sleeping six hours per night had worse reactions times than those who pulled an all-nighter. What's more, those who tried to compensate for lost sleep also weren't able to focus as well as those who had pulled all-nighters.
As Dr. Breus explains, there has been conflicting research regarding catching up on missed sleep (aka, sleep debt) over the years. "Researchers at Penn State University College of Medicine studied the effects of weekend recovery sleep after a week of mild sleep deprivation. They found that make-up sleep on the weekends erased only some of the deficits associated with not sleeping enough the previous week," he says, adding that the 2013 study found weekend catch-up did not improve mental performance. Yet, as The Washington Post reported in February 2019, a recent study discovered extra snooze sessions during the weekend had a detrimental impact on the health of people who regularly were left sleep-deprived during the work week. Long story short: There's a minute chance sleeping more on weekends could have some small benefits if missing sleep is a one-off thing, but it's not an effective strategy on a long-term basis.
The overwhelming consensus among experts and research is that sleep debt is best repaid by practicing good sleep hygiene, and by hopping back into your normal routine ASAP. "It may be tempting to take an indulgent, long nap or 'sleep in,' but unfortunately this derails our circadian rhythm, and will make it harder to fall asleep the following night. The best way to 'pay back' sleep debt is to go to bed early the next night," says Dr. Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow at NYU School of Medicine, and a member of the Pajama Program's Good Night advisory council.
According to Dr. Breus, naps can also be beneficial in some cases when you've skipped a full night of rest, boosting alertness, your mood, and immune system, and lowering blood pressure. However, it's important to keep your afternoon siesta short, and to create an ultra-comfortable environment so you can make the most of the nap.
It may be called sleep debt, but you can't just "pay off" your hours of missed sleep at a later date, call it even, and expect to feel refreshed. Even people who keep the healthiest of sleep-wake cycles slip up from time to time — and that's OK. But ultimately, the goal should be to try to keep a balanced schedule so you don't have to worry about catching up on rest in the first place.