Can you repay a sleep debt?
The straight answer: Yes
The facts: You work extra-long hours from Monday to Friday. So it's only normal for you to want to sleep in on the weekends. In fact, on weekends, all you do is sleep the mornings - and sometimes, afternoons - away, to make up for the rest you did not get during the week.
Chronic sleep deprivation - or sleep debt - is not unusual in our modern world. Most of us get far fewer than the recommended six to eight hours of sleep a night, and it shows - in our mood, our appetite, our libido, and our focus and concentration. Chronic sleep loss has been linked to weight gain, lower sex drive, depression, poor daytime work performance, forgetfulness, impaired judgment, low-grade inflammation, and even serious illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and stroke.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine revealed that catching up on lost rest after a week of sleep deprivation might only help the body recover in a couple of ways.
During the study, the subjects' levels of sleepiness, stress and inflammation increased during their week of sleep deprivation, but these returned to baseline measurements after a weekend of recovery sleep. Unfortunately, however, their attention and cognitive levels did not rebound.
What these results show is that recovery-sleep over a single weekend may not be enough to recoup all the losses caused by missed sleep during the workweek. This is of particular significance if your job involves operating heavy machinery or fast reaction times. Just because you slept in on the weekend, it does not mean that you will be sharp and alert come Monday.
Catching up on missed sleep during the weekends might seem like a good idea - and there is certainly no better feeling than waking up refreshed at 11am on Saturday and Sunday mornings - but you cannot expect to fix your sleep deficit in a short period of time.
In fact, trying to repay a sleep debt over just one or two weekends can actually backfire and cause you to feel more tired. The reason: oversleeping confuses the part of the brain that controls your body's daily sleep cycle. What results is sluggishness, or what some experts like to call "sleep drunkenness". Regular oversleeping has been shown to be just as detrimental to your health as a lack of sleep, causing obesity and diabetes.
To help your brain fully recover from a chronic and long-standing sleep debt, your best bet would be to add on an extra hour or two of sleep each night for a week or two. Try to sleep and wake up at the same time every day until your body gets used to this new pattern.
Over time, you will notice fewer signs of sleep deprivation, such as fatigue and a lack of concentration. If sleeping an extra hour is not possible one night, it might help to sneak in an hour-long nap the next day, to overcome drowsiness and improve cognitive performance.