Sleep Debt: Can You Actually Pay It Back?

Sleep Debt: Can You Actually Pay It Back?
4 min read

Sleep Debt: Can You Actually Pay It Back?

It’s 10 pm. You decide to check Instagram before you call it a night. A little harmless scrolling never hurt anyone, right? A quick scroll turns into hours and the next thing you know it’s 1 am. With a 7 am wake-up call, you are now in sleep debt.

We’ve all been here. A stressful deadline to meet, friends want to catch up after work, or just a plain old binge session on Netflix to decompress after work. All of this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. “So what if I lose a few hours of sleep, I’ll just make up for it on the weekend”, we tell ourselves repeatedly. But as we miss our bedtime for the third night in the week, the question that presents itself is ‘Can you actually catch up on lost sleep?’

Read along as we dive deeper to understand what ‘sleep debt’ actually means and why it is essential we do our best to not get more of it. 

Okay let’s break it down, what is sleep debt?

Sleep debt, in simple terms, is the amount of sleep you have lost by not getting your full night’s sleep for several nights or longer. Time for some simple sleep math - so if your body needs 8 hours of sleep and you have slept only for 6, you have racked up 2 hours of sleep debt. Staying up a night or two may not seem that much, but all those nights of less than adequate sleep add up. And yes, just like debt, it accumulates.

So can you really pay it back?

A simple answer would be yes but it’s a little more complicated than that. We often tend to think of sleep like a bank account. Withdraw one hour on Monday and deposit an extra hour on Sunday to maintain balance. However, lost sleep is more like a loan that we take from our bodies. And like every loan, there is an interest attached, well in this case a high one. 

Research shows that even if we try to make up for the sleep lost over the weekend, our body still has a tough time catching up. While our body does recover, the extra hours put in later still affect our body’s ability to deal with stressors thereby leading to more significant concerns such as imbalanced hormones, impaired immunity and a rise in glucose levels. 

Moreover, the weekend sleep-in strategy, which most of us tend to adopt, can mess with our circadian rhythm. This can make it harder to fall asleep on Sunday night, leading to more sleep debt the following week, and the cycle goes on. (1)

A herbalist’s take on what you can do about it

Our co-founder & herbalist, Vibha Harish, weighs in on what one can do to prevent and recover from sleep debt. 

“Often we fail to understand the consequences that come with not prioritizing sleep. While it may not be immediately obvious, a lot of us have accumulated sleep debt over the years due to poor schedules,” says Vibha.

The broken record of the health industry, ‘prevention is better than cure’, seems to be the case for sleep debt as well. “Maintaining good sleep hygiene and not letting the debt accumulate is the best strategy”, adds Vibha.

In case you’re dealing with sleep debt, here’s what you can do about it: 

#1 Good sleep hygiene goes a long way: Sleep hygiene is the most essential when it comes to dealing with sleep debt. These are all the things we’ve heard before - eat your dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed, avoid devices an hour before bed and get some sunlight first thing in the morning to align your body’s internal clock. 

#2 Sleep earlier rather than waking up later: Our bodies starts to repair themselves by 10 pm onwards and hence, it is important that we carve out more time at night to go to sleep earlier rather than waking up later in the morning. (2) This also ensures that the loss of sleep doesn’t accumulate and it’s not harder to pay back on weekends.

#3 Wake up at the same time: It’s essential that we maintain the same schedule of sleeping and waking up even on weekends. This means no sleeping in. (sorry!) Sleeping in on weekends disrupts our circadian rhythm and makes it harder for us to wake up on time on Monday morning. 

#4 Short naps are better: We get it, life happens. As idealistic as health standards can sometimes get, we understand that some nights you won’t be able to follow your routine. The best thing to do in this case would be to take a short nap, no more than 20 minutes, during the day instead of sleeping in. (3) Ideally try to take a nap before 3 pm so that it does not interfere with your sleep at night. 

#5 Exercise in the morning instead of evening: Exercising raises the body temperature which can be detrimental when it comes to sleep as melatonin is at its peak when our core body temperature (CBT) is at its lowest. (4) Hence, it is important that those with sleep troubles exercise during the day instead of in the evening or at night. 

#6 Aid with herbal sleep allies: Herbs such as Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) (5) and Chamomilla (Matricaria Recutita) (6) are great sleep allies that help to battle sleep debt as they help our body switch to a state of deep relaxation. Tagara is another powerful Indian herb that's safe for use and well-known for its mild sedative effects and anxiolytic properties. 

by Navyaashali Chauhan – January 10, 2024