Sleep Debt – Can You Make Up Lost Sleep?

Last updated: March 6, 2019


This is a concept that defines cumulative loss of sleep during a specified period – it is about chronic sleep deprivation. Thus if you are sleeping an hour less than necessary for feeling fresh and energetic, and it continues for a week. Your sleep debt is equal to 7 hours.

Sleep debt is still poorly understood and defined phenomenon. Nonetheless, the calculated amount of such debt may help predict many disease conditions in the people. Accumulating sleep may predispose to some disease conditions. Sleep debt may help predict the risk of road accidents, injuries at the job.

The scientific basis of the phenomenon

Research in the working of the brain is quite challenging. Nonetheless, the evidence is emerging that this phenomenon of sleep accumulation is real. Likewise, the consequences of sleep deprivation are grave.

Study of the neurochemistry of sleep shows that this accumulation of debt is a result of chemical reactions in the brain. During wakefulness phosphorylation of more than 80 known proteins occur. These proteins are called synaptic sleep-need-index phosphoproteins (SNIPPs). During sleep cycle these proteins are dephosphorylated, thus explaining the refreshing effect of good night’s sleep.

Is Sleep debt harmful?

Yes, science has proven that sleep deprived person it at higher risk of chronic diseases. It raises the risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, blood pressure, insulin resistance. Insufficient sleep raises cortisol levels, a kind of stress hormone, thus further worsening health.

Although experts agree with the health risks, they do not entirely agree with the way this debt is calculated. One hour sleep deprivation each day or night would accumulate a deficit of 7 hours in a week or 365 hours in a year.

However, researchers think that sleep variation, to some degree, is reasonable. They think that we do not need to sleep the same amount of time each night. Moreover, researchers believe that there is seasonal variance in sleep.

In cold countries, people tend to sleep more during winter days as the night is longer. Moreover, during winters most people have fewer activities to do. Early sunset means early retirement to bed. Conversely, in the summertime, most people reduce sleep time as the night is short. They want to spend more time outside, more time on various activities. Researchers think that sleeping more during some days is not about debt payment.

Even though, there is disagreement about how to calculate this accumulating sleep, but what most agree that it exists. Moreover, health specialists agree that accumulating sleep debt is bad for health.

Sleep debt describes chronic sleep deficit. It means that higher the accumulation of insufficient sleep, higher is the risk of irreversible damage to health. So small sleep debt would cause irritability, mood swings, but a high amount of sleep debt may result in permanent changes in the brain and other organs.

Research shows that accumulating sleep debt may increase the sensitivity of emotional center in the brain called amygdala. It means that even if a person starts settling the sleep debt by sleeping adequately, he or she may remain emotionally less stable for long.

Same implies to the health of other organs. Short-term changes are reversible, but long-term is not.

Paying Back Your Sleep Debt

First and foremost, you need to understand that there is no way to repay long-term debt. You cannot compensate for tens or hundreds of lost hours of sleep. So if you have accumulated a debt of 700 hours, you cannot repay it by sleeping continually for a month. It means that the best strategy is to avoid debt accumulation and sleep enough at night.

The starting point for any correction strategy is determining your sleep hours. For some people, 7 hours are enough, while others may need a full 9 hours of sleep to feel refreshed.

  • Settling short-term debt – so you were not able to sleep enough for last few days (let’s say three days). Do not worry; you can just pay that debt back by relaxing a few extra hours during the weekend, by having a good night’s sleep. Just try to go to bed early at night. Short-term sleep deprivation can be compensated.
  • Repaying long-term debt – As we already said that paying long-term debt is not realistic by adding extra hours to your sleep. Thus you need a strategy to counter the ill effects of such sleep deprivation. It means relaxing, practicing mindfulness regularly. It means socializing, going out more at weekends. It means spending more time in the sun, in the laps of nature.
  • Avoid accumulating any new debt– now once you have understood that such debt can kill or hurt you badly. Think of strategy like having a nap during the day. Also, sleep for the more extended period during the weekends (but avoid oversleeping). Keep your sleep pattern regularized.

Thus you need to understand that there is no way to repay chronic sleep debt. Every night, fall asleep at a fixed time. Get treated for sleep disorders, especially if you have insomnia or sleep apnea. Take care of general health and well-being. All you need is to listen to your circadian rhythm.

Additional resources

  1. Van Dongen HPA, Rogers NL, Dinges DF. Sleep debt: Theoretical and empirical issues. Sleep Biol Rhythms. 2003;1(1):5-13. doi:10.1046/j.1446-9235.2003.00006.x
  2. Motomura Y, Kitamura S, Oba K, et al. Sleep Debt Elicits Negative Emotional Reaction through Diminished Amygdala-Anterior Cingulate Functional Connectivity. PLOS ONE. 2013;8(2):e56578. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056578
  3. Publishing HH. Repaying your sleep debt. Harvard Health. Accessed November 7, 2018.
  4. Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van EC. Impact of sleep debt on physiological rhythms. Rev Neurol (Paris). 2003;159(11 Suppl):6S11-20.
  5. Wang Z, Ma J, Miyoshi C, et al. Quantitative phosphoproteomic analysis of the molecular substrates of sleep need. Nature. 2018;558(7710):435-439. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0218-8

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