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Sleep Debt Calculator: How Long It Takes To ‘Recover’ Missed Sleep

Do you get enough sleep, or does getting up in the morning sometimes feel almost impossible? Do you need a second or third cup of coffee in the afternoon? Because if that is you, you are not alone. According to a new study, about one-third of adults in the U.S. report having sleeping difficulties, leading to noticeable daytime fatigue. 

For the study, researchers looked at over 9,000 adults aged 20 years and older between 2017 and 2020. What they found was that more than 30% of adults have what’s known as chronic sleep debt. They also noticed that many adults play the game of sleep “catch-up” on days off from work, sleeping in as an attempt to relieve the sleep debt accumulated throughout the work week. 

It is important to note that all the study data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, more recent surveys conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have found that over 50% of adults now report sleep disturbances, up from the 30% figure in the other study. Clearly, the number of people not getting sufficient sleep is another health trend moving in the wrong direction. 

This is a big deal because chronic poor sleep is a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. The average American is already doing a pretty crummy job with nutrition and exercise. Add poor sleep to that equation, and we could dig ourselves into a bigger hole than we are already in when it comes to our health. 

So why is playing “catch-up” on off days not the ideal solution to our sleep debt problem? The main reason is that inconsistency in your sleep schedule disrupts your circadian rhythm. If you sleep in on the weekends, you will throw your internal clock out of whack, which might be doing more harm than good. 

Some sleep debt calculators say one hour of missed sleep can take up to four days to recover

If you sleep in a couple of hours later on Sunday morning, for example, you have now set your internal clock back by those same hours. Come Sunday night, you may not be able to fall asleep as early as you’d like, given that your circadian rhythm is now acting on a delay. So you fall asleep later than you’d like on Sunday night and have to be up early to start the week on Monday. You have now started the week off in considerable sleep debt. 

Playing catch-up on Saturdays and Sundays also may be doing little as far as recovering from the sleep you lost during the week. According to a study from 2016, it actually takes four days of consistent and proper sleep to fully recover from one hour of lost sleep. So unless you have a four-day weekend, the “catch-up” game may not be doing you any good at all. 

The key takeaway? Sleep is important, but you already know that. The key takeaway is really that consistency matters more than anything when getting the proper quantity and quality of sleep your body deserves. 

We all get busy, and sometimes sleep takes a back seat when that happens. Sick kids, crazy hours at work, and a long commute might all be outside our control and impact our sleep. However, limiting caffeine eight hours before bed, alcohol three hours before bed, and screens 60 minutes before bed are all things in our control that can significantly impact how well we sleep each night. Get in good habits and you won’t need a sleep debt calculator ever again.

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