Getting enough sleep is essential to staying healthy and feeling our best, but it can be challenging to meet the recommended 7-9 hours each night that our bodies need.
Around one-third of people are functioning on less than six hours of sleep per night, and with our increasingly busy and stressful lives, this number is on the rise.
But thankfully, making small changes to our routines and prioritizing sleep can fix some of the damage that sleeps deprivation causes.
Can You Catch Up on Sleep?
Yes, you can! In this post, we’ll examine what the experts say about catching up on lost sleep and explain how you can go from feeling tired, irritable, and barely functioning to feeling happy, healthy, and energized each day.
What is a Sleep Deficit?
A sleep deficit, also called sleep debt, happens when the number of hours of sleep we get is less than the number of hours our body needs.
So, for example, if you need eight hours of sleep each night to function at your best, but last night, you only got five and half hours of shut-eye, today, you have a sleep deficit of 2.5 hours.
Plus, sleep deficits can be cumulative, so getting just 30 minutes less sleep than you need can quickly add up if it happens regularly.
These cumulative hours of additional wakefulness are only sometimes noticeable, and many people might not even feel tired. But under the surface, the detrimental effects of sleep deficit are likely playing havoc with our health.
Even the heaviest sleepers will suffer from a sleep deficit from time to time, but for many people, it’s their default, day-to-day state.
Those who suffer from chronic insomnia are in a constant state of sleep deficit, and the consequences can be catastrophic, not for our health but for our overall happiness and well-being.
Sleep deprivation is linked to lowered immune function, cognitive impairment, metabolic issues such as weight gain, and an increased chance of developing serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
And in the short term, sleep deprivation leaves us feeling so exhausted that even day-to-day tasks such as work, school, driving, and socializing with friends and family can feel impossible.
If you find yourself in a sleep deficit, you might wonder if you can catch up and get your body back to where it needs to be. The good news is that, yes, you absolutely can!
While the long-term effects of a chronic sleep deficit might not be entirely reversed, getting extra sleep and helping your body recover from a lack of rest will put you on your way to living your best life.
How to Avoid a Sleep Deficit?
The best way to avoid a sleep deficit is to ensure you get your body’s recommended hours each night.
Most experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, agree that adults need between 7-9 hours each night. Of course, where you sit on that spectrum will depend on your natural physiology, emotional state, and daily energy expenditure.
To avoid accumulating a sleep deficit in the first place, it’s important to figure out your sleep needs and prioritize getting enough sleep each and every day.
While staying up a little later to finish a work assignment or watch one more episode of the latest Netflix show might feel like no big deal at the time, these small decisions quickly add up to a whopping sleep deficit.
So, improving your sleep schedule and sleep hygiene is key. Here are a few tips to get you back on track:
1. Stick to a Schedule
Having a healthy sleep schedule is crucial. This means setting your alarm and getting out of bed at the same time each day, even on the weekends. It also means going to bed and turning out the lights at a set time, even if you don’t feel particularly tired.
At first, you may find it difficult to drift off, but once your body gets used to your new sleep/wake cycle, you’ll find yourself feeling sufficiently sleepy, and drifting off into dreamland will become much more manageable.
2. Create Healthy Habits
In the evening, it can be helpful to prepare your body for sleep by engaging in healthy habits such as meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises.
Activities like taking a hot bath, inhaling essential oils, and reading a book can also help you to wind down and adjust from a waking state to a state of slumber. And, of course, avoiding blue light-emitting devices such as laptops, tablets, and cell phones are essential in the hours leading up to bedtime.
But what we do during the day can also significantly impact the time we fall asleep.
Getting plenty of fresh air and exercise during daylight hours helps to calibrate your circadian rhythms and ensure you feel sufficiently sleepy when the evening comes.
Experts also recommend avoiding coffee and other stimulants in the afternoon and shortening or even skipping it entirely if you regularly take a long nap.
3. Pay Attention to Light
After the sun goes down, our circadian rhythms are naturally attuned to make us feel sleepy and prepare us for bed. But in our modern world filled with artificial light, these age-old circadian rhythms can be easily thrown out of balance.
To help rectify the issues that artificial light causes, try to limit your exposure to white and blue light-emitting bulbs and screens in the evening.
Instead, switch your bulbs to orange and red spectrum options, which mimic the sunset colors and trigger melatonin release.
Limit screen time in the hours before bed too, and avoid falling asleep with the light on; even a dim light bulb can confuse your circadian rhythms and trigger you to wake up when you should be fast asleep.
4. Create a Soothing Sleep Environment
Our bedrooms are more than just a place to lay our heads; they’re our sleep sanctuaries that can be optimized to increase our nightly number of zzz’s dramatically.
Make sure your mattress, pillows, and sheets are as comfortable as possible, restrict any light sources or outside noise that might keep you awake, and keep the temperature cool, around 60-67°F (15-19° C).
You could also try diffusing some sleep-inducing essential oils to help you drift off. If you’re unsure what scents to try, check out our in-depth guide to essential oils for relaxation.
And if you’re still struggling to fall asleep at a reasonable time, consider investing in a red light therapy lamp for your nightstand. Red light has the power to kick-start the production of melatonin, helping you slip away into slumberland quickly and easily.
How to Recover From a Sleep Deficit?
In an ideal world, we would avoid getting into a sleep deficit in the first place, but sometimes, life gets in the way. So, when bad sleep hygiene, stress, a heavy workload, or insomnia lead to sleep deprivation, it’s time to work out a recovery plan.
Recovering from a sleep deficit takes time, but with the right tools and a little persistence, you catch up on the sleep you’ve lost and feel like yourself again.
Here are some tried and tested ways to fix an existing sleep deficit, as recommended by experts.
1. Take a Power Nap
As we discussed above, napping too much during the day can have a negative impact on your nightly sleep, but if you’re already in a sleep deficit, a short nap can be just what the doctor ordered.
This study suggests that most sleep experts agree that the optimum nap duration is between 10 and 20 minutes. A brief nap provides just enough time to revive a tired mind and boost your brain to get through the day without disrupting your all-important whole night’s sleep later in the evening.
2. Adjust Your Schedule
The most crucial part of sleep deficit recovery is prioritizing sleep. So, now is a good time to reflect on your daily routines and adjust your busy calendar to make time for a healthy 7-9 hours going forward.
You might assume you’re too busy to fit in an extra hour or two each night, but most of us would be surprised at what spare time we can find.
The average person spends a whopping 2 hours and 24 minutes every day on social media, so if you’re an Instagram or Twitter addict, consider how this extra time could be better spent sleeping.
3. Build up Your Sleep Time Slowly
When you’re sleep deprived, it can be tempting to sleep much longer and later than usual in an effort to catch up all at once.
But many experts argue that this method can be counterproductive, as sleeping late into the day will most likely lead to staying up too late the following night. And before you know it, you’re back in the same unhealthy sleep pattern, and the sleep deficit cycle begins again.
Instead, try to incorporate extra sleep time slowly by adding 20-30 minutes each night until you’ve reached the optimum number of hours.
Then, maintain these regular sleep patterns by practicing the good sleep hygiene habits we mentioned earlier in this post.
4. Stay Consistent
Recovering from a sleep deficit takes time, and there needs to be a fast-track way to clear your sleep debt. Studies have shown that it can take up to nine days to eliminate an existing sleep deficit, so consistency is key when it comes to making a full recovery.
Once your regular sleep pattern is back on track, set your morning alarm at the same time each day, and wherever possible, go to bed at the same time.
Sleep deprivation can hugely impact our health and well-being, so recovering from a sleep deficit is crucial to repair the damage done by lack of sleep.
Hopefully, this post has reassured you that regaining your energy and vitality is possible, and with the right tools and a little patience, you’ll be back to feeling like yourself.
For more tips on getting the best night’s sleep possible, check out our extensive sleep hygiene guides to help you optimize your nighttime routine, and become the happiest, healthiest, and most well-rested version of yourself.