We've all heard it and most of us have probably said it: "I can't wait to catch up on sleep this weekend." After a long week of getting up early and working late, most of us look forward to sleeping in on Saturday morning, sometimes until the afternoon (no judging here). Over the course of a busy week we accumulate what is termed a sleep debt, which is really just a fancy way to quantify the difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting and the amount of sleep you actually do get. The idea of banking sleep conveys the idea that for any currency taken out causing a debt, in this case sleep, that debt can be made up for by returning the same currency in a larger amount later. For most of us, banking sleep has surpassed healthy strategy and become a way of life. But does it actually work?
Let's say that you normally sleep eight hours nightly, but this week you had a massive project due and only slept six hours nightly. Surely, you'd be feeling tired and ready for a weekend of sleeping in and heavy cat naps, so you sleep an extra two hours both Saturday and Sunday. On Monday you might wake up feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but you are actually still operating on a sleep debt of about six hours - equivalent to an entire night's sleep by last week's standards. So even though you might feel like you've paid your debts, there's more where that came from.
"Sleep debt has to be paid off a little at a time rather than a lump sum payment after the fact."
While this might sound discouraging, there is a silver lining: sleep actually can be made-up at a later time. The catch, however, is in how you choose to do it and how long you wait before you make it up. Sleep debt has to be paid off a little at a time rather than a lump sum payment after the fact. So it turns out that sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday isn't what necessarily will help us pay off our sleep debts. In fact, Joyce Walsleben, RN, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine adds that sleeping in on the weekends will also throw off your natural sleep rhythm, making it difficult to fall asleep earlier and creating a sleep debt all over again. Additionally, all those years in college pulling all-nighters, and the damage that did to your performance, is gone and cannot be made up. Only sleep in the short-term can be made up at a later time.
If you feel like you are constantly working your way up and down in your sleep bank, adding an hour or two at a time to your regular sleep schedule might be a better strategy. In order to determine the optimal sleep time and to make up any sleep debt that you are experiencing, it's best to go to sleep when you're tired and to wake up naturally without an alarm clock. While initially you may experience grogginess due to longer sleep than you are accustomed (sometimes 10+ hours), your sleep cycles will shorten once your debt has been made up. It's best to maintain this strategy throughout the weekends so as to not accumulate any more sleep debt and to return to an optimal sleep schedule for you.
"In order to determine the optimal sleep time and to make up any sleep debt that you are experiencing, it's best to go to sleep when you're tired and to wake up naturally without an alarm clock."
Frequent napping is another strategy for overcoming sleep debt championed by sleep expert Dr. W. Christopher Winter. Dr. Winter suggests that taking a scheduled nap at the same time and duration every day is a much more effective strategy than trying to make up for lost sleep in one day. 25 minutes is suggested as an optimal time because the body can slow down enough to rest without falling into dream-sleep, which is what makes us feel groggy and confused after longer naps. This type of napping appeals to your body's love of routine and helps keep us more alert so we are less prone to sleeping in.
So rejoice fellow nap-takers and lazy Sunday partakers everywhere! The sleep you lost over the course of the week can be made up, if you're smart about how you pay it off.
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