Sleep Debt – Why Making Up Your Sleep on the Weekend Still Comes at a Cost

A tired young woman sits in her bed in the morning

Being in debt is never a great feeling, whether it’s staring at a large credit card balance in the mail or dealing with the effects of a mounting sleep debt.

But what even is sleep debt, and what does it mean?

It’s a simple concept. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you get each night and the amount you should be getting. (For adults, I typically recommend getting about 7.5 hours of sleep each night.)

Your sleep debt increases every time you trim a few minutes off your usual sleep schedule, in the same way, your credit card debt increases each time you go on a late night Amazon shopping spree. No judgment, I’ve been there, too.

And if you’re suffering from sleep debt, you’re not alone: a 2020 study found that Americans are averaging less than 6 hours of sleep each night. And even some sleep debt can be dangerous, leading to long-term health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, increased stress levels, and a weaker immune system. `

The good news is that sleep debt isn’t permanent, and while real, there are also real solutions to get out of a sleep debt cycle. I’ll tell you why sleep debt can’t be paid off on weekends, dive into deeper details about why sleep debt is dangerous, and tell you how to avoid cumulative sleep debt.

As a bonus, I’ll also offer my top tips for avoiding sleep debt in the first place.

Why You Can’t Pay Off Sleep Debt on Weekends

Using your weekend to catch up on sleep sounds good in theory, but it rarely pans out, according to a new study out of France.

The study, looking at more than 12,500 adults between the ages of 18-75, found that nearly one-quarter of participants had severe sleep debt during the week, defined as getting at least 90 minutes less sleep than they really needed each night.

Worse, most were unable to make up for their sleep debt over the weekend. Only 18.2% of participants with severe sleep debts were able to sleep enough during the weekend to make up for their poor week. In other words, for those who went into the weekend about 5 hours behind on sleep for the week, fewer than one out of five were able to get enough sleep to offset their debt. On average, participants reported getting 7 hours and 26 minutes of sleep on the weekends — a healthy amount of sleep, but not enough to pay off the debt they’d accumulated.

So why can’t people, on average, sleep in on weekends? Researchers point to a few reasons.

For one, many of us don’t have enough time. If you add up even an hour lost per night over a 5 day week, that’s five hours of sleep debt….to cover in a single weekend. Poor sleep conditions were another roadblock. This included a number of relatable factors, including noise, stress and having children at home. It’s also vital to choose the right kind of mattress for your sleep needs too––for example, if you are a side sleeper you should be on something softer such as a memory foam mattress as opposed to something firm.

The key takeaway to remember is that assuming you can pay off your sleep debt on the weekends is anything but a guarantee.

Making Up Your Sleep on the Weekend Still Comes at a Cost

Let’s say you’re able to beat the odds and pay off your sleep debt on the weekends. That’s great — but it still comes with a cost.

A study published last year in Current Biology suggests that sleeping in during the weekends doesn’t really solve the problem of sleep debt. During the week, even those who slept extra hours over the weekend experience negative drawbacks linked to sleep deprivation, including:

  • Reduced energy levels
  • Added weight due to higher calorie consumption at dinner
  • Low insulin sensitivity
    •  This can result in higher blood sugar levels, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes

Ultimately, letting sleep debt accumulate with the intention of making up for it over the weekend, leads to poor results. Either you fail to spend enough time in bed to negate your sleep debt, or, if you are able to get plenty of sleep on the weekends, the sleep debt you’ve accumulated has still contributed to its own set of problems.

 Why Sleep Debt is Dangerous

Letting your sleep debt pile up is the last thing you want to do. Your body needs quality, restorative sleep to function at its best.

In fact, sleep deprivation is dangerous. Even just a little sleep debt can contribute to the following health conditions:

Tips on How to Avoid a Severe Sleep Debt

Hopefully, I haven’t scared you too much; while sleep debt cumulation can be dangerous, there are still things you can do.  The following steps will help you prevent from getting into the sleep debt cycle in the first place, making for a healthier, more rested you:

Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule

This is easily the most important tip to follow. To avoid the need to use the weekend to catch up on sleep, you’ll need a consistent sleep schedule of  7-8 hours each night..

How to do it? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Choose the best mattress for your sleep preferences. Sleeping on the wrong mattress runs the risk of increasing your sleep debt because you potentially could feel discomfort and pain.
  • Go to bed and get up within the same half hour window every day
  • Schedule it, like you would work or exercise.
  • Use my sleep calculator to figure out what routine works for you.
  • If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try a natural sleep aid like Sleep Doctor PM. Formulated with natural ingredients, it not only helps you fall asleep faster, but it’s also non habit forming

Avoid Exercising Late at Night

Make no mistake, working out is great for you. It’s also a great natural sleep aid. One common issue I see with my clients who are not getting enough sleep, though, is that they work out too close to their bedtime.

Exercise raises your energy levels and leaves you feeling stimulated — two sensations that do not lend themselves to falling asleep quickly. Working out also raises your body temperature for about 4 hours, and as we’ve touched on in the past, you want to stay cool before bed. A cooling mattress can assist with temperature regulation and helping your body unwind. When your body temperature rises, it’s a natural signal to your body to wake up. So if you’re going to work out after work, go for it — but make sure you give yourself a 3-4 hour buffer between when you finish and when you plan on going to bed.

Take a Warm Bath

This might sound a little counterproductive. After all, I just said it’s important to regulate your body and room temperature if you want to give yourself the best chance at falling asleep and staying asleep.

But there are three important reasons taking a warm bath before bed helps you fall asleep:

  • Warmth baths help produce melatonin.
    • By signaling the pineal gland to produce melatonin, known as the sleep hormone, it takes less time to fall asleep, improves sleep quality, and even sleep duration.
  • Warm baths relax our muscles.
    • The warmth eases tension on joints and makes lying down more comfortable.
  • Warm baths help lower our internal temperature
    • Odd as it may seem, hot water actually helps cool the body down by improving blood circulation from your core to your hands and feet

The best part? It only takes a 10-minute bath an hour or two before bed to reap these sleep benefits.

If you’ve noticed your sleep window has been getting shorter and shorter lately, don’t stress. Try working these few tips into your routine and you should start to feel more energized soon– no sleep debt payment required.

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!

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