Whether watching late-night TV, cramming for an exam, or staying out with friends longer than planned, we are all guilty of missing a few hours of sleep once in a while. Many people rationalize this lack of sleep by planning to catch up on weekends. But does this really work?
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
As a general rule, experts recommend between seven and a half and eight hours of sleep per night. The actual amount needed varies from person to person. Some require as many as ten hours a night while others may only need six.
We generally figure out how much sleep we need by trial and error. Humans are the only species that will intentionally fight the urge to sleep, so it’s important to listen to your body and make adjustments based on how you feel.
How Important is Sleep?
We all know that we feel better when we are well rested. Sleep allows your body to recover and recharge, and your brain to rest and refocus. When you get less sleep than you should, your body and mind start to suffer.
The difference between the amount of sleep that your body requires and the amount that you actually get is known as sleep debt. Just like regular debt, this can add up quickly. Cutting yourself short by one hour a night will add up to over two full weeks of sleep debt over the course of a year.
If you are getting less than five hours of sleep per night, you are sleep deprived.
Studies have shown that even short-term sleep deprivation can lead to serious problems. You may feel groggy, have difficulty remembering things and feel overly emotional.
Consistent lack of sleep can cause vision problems and impair your driving ability. Long-term effects include weight gain, impaired immune function, insulin resistance, heart disease, and impaired brain function.
Is it Possible to Catch Up on Sleep?
For short-term sleep debt you can probably catch up if you do it within the first few days. If you sleep poorly one night and then go to bed early the next, you are unlikely to suffer any negative effects. However, if you build up sleep debt all week expecting to catch up over the weekend, it will most likely be too late. By then it is likely that you will already be irritable and your focus and reaction time will be diminished. Sleeping too much on the weekends can also disrupt your circadian cycle, potentially causing insomnia by the time Sunday rolls around.
Taking a nap the day after a poor night’s sleep may help to reduce some of the negative effects, but this is a short-term solution. Napping late in the day can also interfere with falling asleep at night, so make sure to do it in the early afternoon if possible.
If you are chronically sleep deprived you can reverse some of the damage, but it will take time. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s website Sleep.org, getting your body back on a schedule of seven to ten hours a night is the key to catching up to sleep. You can do this by adding an extra hour or two each night over several months. Going to bed a little bit earlier and sleeping a little bit later each day will help you to gradually settle into this new pattern.