Can You Make Up Lost Sleep? (It’s Impossible to Get a Straight Answer)

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Can you make up lost sleep?

Traditionally, experts have long agreed that you can’t make up for lost sleep at the weekend or on your days off.

However, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research has controversially gone against this.

The study has concluded that sleeping in on certain days can at least cancel out some associated health risks from not getting enough sleep during your working week.

With that being said, just to add fuel to the fire, Current Biology, published their own findings from a 2019 study, claiming that getting extra rest at the weekend will not be enough to make up for sleep lost during the week.

So, if the experts can’t seem to agree, what’s the answer?

The Study That Went Against Conventional Wisdom

I wanted to take a quick look first at the study published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

The findings were based on responses to a survey conducted on approximately 38,000 Swedish adults. They were asked questions about their lifestyle, medical histories, and their weekday and weekend sleeping habits.

The main aim of the survey was to use this data to look at the link between total sleep duration and mortality.

There was a total of 13 years of data to analyze and the researchers concluded that people who slept for five hours or fewer a night had a 65% greater risk of premature death than people who consistently slept for 6-7 hours a night.

However, and this is where it gets interesting – researchers found that people who made up for less sleep during the week by sleeping for longer at the weekend didn’t have a higher mortality rate than those who slept for 6 or 7 hours a night.

So, the main conclusion from this study was that you can compensate for lost weekday sleep at the weekend and it won’t have an adverse effect on your mortality.

Various industry experts said they were “intrigued” by the findings, but were cautious and felt more studies into this subject were needed.

Personally, I feel the findings of this study are a little misleading, as it doesn’t take into consideration the other health risks associated with losing sleep, many of which can lead to premature death anyway. (I will discuss these in a moment).

Losing Just An Hour’s Sleep Is Worse Than You Think

I’d like to use an analogy of borrowing money from your savings account when it comes to lost sleep.

Many of us believe that if we withdraw an hour of sleep on Wednesday morning we can simply deposit it back on Saturday.

However, you may feel far more alert and refreshed on Saturday, but you’re unable to make up on lost sleep hour by hour. (I guess you could say your “savings account” has lost out on a few days’ interest).

In fact, research suggests that in order to make up just one hour’s sleep debt you would require approximately 4 days of adequate rest.

As most of us get far less sleep than we typically need during the week it’s pretty much impossible to “catch up” over a two-day weekend. Basically, our sleep debt is racking up over and over again.

Your Circadian Rhythm Doesn’t Work Like That

Your circadian rhythm, or your internal 24-hour sleep-wake body clock, simply doesn’t work in that way. You may believe that the occasional early morning or a random late night isn’t causing you much grief, but your internal body clock has other ideas.

Your circadian rhythm/clock works in tandem with the earth’s solar day, i.e. it distinguishes between day and night (light and dark). Your body will start to secrete the sleep hormone melatonin at approximately 9pm, and the levels of melatonin will remain elevated throughout the night, before dropping back off in the morning.

Melatonin is influenced by your exposure to light, which is why we are told to avoid using screens before bedtime. The blue light radiated from your smartphone or tablet can almost “trick” the brain and the body into believing it’s daytime, thus decreasing the production of melatonin.

This is also why it is so important to maintain a regular sleep and wake time, as your circadian rhythm will be far more reliable.

Just having a few late nights in a row can confuse your internal body clock and it isn’t long before your body wants to naturally stay awake a bit later at night.

Have you ever noticed that?

You spend a few nights going to bed an hour later than you usually do, and when you try to revert back to your normal bedtime you just don’t feel tired.

The same can be said after a few mornings waking up earlier than usual.

Do you recall a time when you were getting up earlier during the week and then have a late Friday and Saturday night, but can’t seem to sleep in on Sunday?

We tend to think that we have instilled a new habit, but when it comes to sleep it’s actually because your internal body clock has made certain shifts to deal with these changes.

More Confusion From The Experts

5 experts were asked – Can you make up lost sleep?

And they were divided in their answers. For more detailed responses you can check out the full article at Quartz.

Chin Moi Chow, a sleep researcher, says yes.

Chow claims that you can catch up on sleep, but not the exact number of hours lost.

Leonie Kirszenblat, a neuroscientist, tends to agree.

She says that in the short-term you can catch up on lost sleep. If you have a bad night’s rest you’ll feel as though you require more sleep the following night. Your brain will detect that you haven’t had enough sleep.

Siobhan Banks, also a sleep researcher, again answers in the positive.

She feels that we are psychologically driven to get more sleep when we’ve been without. Although she does state that our ability to catch up on lost sleep depends on how sleep deprived we actually are.

Gemma Paech, a sleep researcher, answers with a resounding No.

Gemma agrees with what I’ve alluded to above – While we will typically sleep for longer in order to catch up on sleep lost, we will never be able to recover this hour for hour.

Melinda Jackson, a psychologist, always states that the answer is no.

Melinda claims that our 24-hour internal body clock will essentially “reset” the following day. So if you haven’t been getting enough sleep during the week and stay in bed longer at the weekend you’ll find it more difficult to fall asleep at your usual time on Sunday night.

So, in reality, we’re still none the wiser.

The Health Risks Associated With Being Sleep Deprived

One thing that scientific research and sleep research experts all agree on is that there are some major consequences, both physically and psychologically, to being sleep deprived.

Some of the most common dangers include:

  • Being sleep deprived will impair your judgement. Your emotional intelligence will be affected, as well as your overall behavior, and your ability to handle stress.
  • Sleep disorders in general have been linked to various mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Not getting adequate sleep can lead to raised blood pressure, which in the long-term can lead to an increased risk of certain diseases. These include, heart disease and stroke.
  • Not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain. Levels of the hormone leptin, which is responsible for telling the brain how much stored fat you have, will decrease, and the levels of the hormone most associated with hunger, ghrelin will increase.
  • It is estimated that 100,000 road accidents in the US every year can be attributed to fatigue, with over 30,000 of the drivers saying they fell asleep behind the wheel.
  • If you suffer from severe sleep deprivation this can lead to hallucinations, and in some cases even temporary psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia.

Taking Everything Into Account

So, can you make up lost sleep?

Well it appears that there is much confusion as to whether you can or can’t.

For me, I tend to agree with the naysayers. I know what it’s like to go a few days, or even a week, missing out on a few hours sleep here and there.

Whenever I’ve attempted to catch up on sleep I typically end up being wide awake at the wrong times and I don’t feel I have gained any additional rest.

In fact, even something as seemingly innocuous as taking a short afternoon nap to catch up on sleep can have repercussions when you go to bed that evening.

I think the real issue here is why we are losing out on sleep in the first place.

Granted, there will be the odd occasion where you may go to bed late or have to get up earlier than usual, but if this is a regular occurrence for you… well, the dangers are clearly stated above.

This is why it’s essential that you create good sleep habits and learn how to improve the quality of your sleep.

Are you someone who struggles with sleep on a regular basis?

What camp are you?

Do you think it is possible to catch up on lost sleep or not?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Thank you for reading.

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8 thoughts on “Can You Make Up Lost Sleep? (It’s Impossible to Get a Straight Answer)”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article. Made me think that I’ll have to make some changes in my habits.

    Reply
    • Hi Tanja,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I glad the article was of interest to you and equally pleased that has made you question your own sleeping habits.

      I must say that I don’t believe that it is possible to make up for “lost sleep”, so by changing our habits to begin with is surely the answer.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  2. This is a very intriguing article. I know how much I love to sleep, but I also know how much sleep I don’t get on a daily basis. I am usually able to function on 5-6 hours of sleep a night, though a couple of days in, I begin to feel the effects of it and need to go to sleep earlier to “make it up.” In my case, getting a full night’s rest after not sleeping more than 5 hours the night before does help me to feel better, though this may not be the case for everyone. Either way, brilliant read! God bless you!

    Reply
    • Hi C.N.

      Thank you very much for your kind comments.

      Yes, I will say that sleep is different for everyone. The recommended amount of sleep for an adult is between 7-9 hours, but some people may find they can function perfectly normally with less than this.

      However, I think when we start getting into the realms of 5 hours or less sleep a night, on a regular basis, this may potentially have some adverse effects.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  3. Great post!
    This was really interesting! I am definitely a person that thinks I’m making up for lost sleep by sleeping for a loooong time certain days. This was really insightful!

    Reply
    • Hi Martine,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Unfortunately, I’m in the other camp.

      I don’t believe we can make up for lost sleep, trust me I’ve tried on many occasions.

      Thanks
      Partha

      Reply
  4. This is really interesting. We still have so much to learn about the human, body, brain and sleep. I have to agree with you. I think it is better to try and get a good night’s sleep every night. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Hi Catherine,

      Great to hear from you and thank you for your kind comments.

      Yes, as boring as it sounds, but simply trying to go to bed and waking up at the same times each day can do wonders for our overall health.

      I accept that this isn’t always possible – there may be the odd occasion when we are required to go to bed later or wake up earlier.

      As long as this doesn’t become a regular habit that’s fine.

      Partha

      Reply

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