Most believe that ‘catching up’ on sleep is possible through a single extended sleep marathon. If you’ve pulled 2 all nighters in a row, getting only about 7 hours of sleep in the last 48 hours, a single 10-hour sleep period should compensate for your lack of sleep, right?
Nope. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
As it turns out, catching up on sleep is more of a long, drawn-out war than a single glorious battle to the end. And in the war against the boundless evils of sleep deprivation, your only hope of winning is to use strategies based on science.
You Can’t Really Catch Up on Sleep with Just a Single Extended Sleep Episode
According to a 2010 study conducted by a team of experts from Harvard Medicine, University of Surrey, Rush University, and several decorated medical institutions, a single extended sleep period is not nearly enough to fully compensate for the effects of chronic sleep loss. Study participants were made to follow a strict sleeping schedule designed to give them 10 hours of sleep and 32.85 hours of being awake; this means that their sleep-to-wake ratio was set at 1:3.3 (effectively inducing a state of acute sleep-deprivation).
The sleep schedules were designed in ways that distributed both sleep and wake episodes across all circadian phases (24 hours), which allowed experts to measure the effects of the 1:3.3 sleep-to-wake ratio during different times of the day/night.
A 10-Hour Sleep Episode Can Restore Performance ONLY for the First Couple Hours
Experts found that when participants first awakened from their 10-hour sleep opportunities, they were vigilant enough to complete basic mental tasks as though they weren’t sleep-deprived. This, however, lasted only during their first couple hours of being awake. After that, as circadian ‘night’ approached (the later hours during their periods of being awake) their performance suffered an increased rate of deterioration; the longer they stayed awake, the worse their performance was when performing mental tasks.
The lesson here is that if you have to work after ‘catching up on sleep’ via a 10-hour sleep marathon, do it in the first couple hours when you’re feeling your best. As this study has found out, you’re bound to feel worse and be less competent later in the day.
Those first couple hours of bright-eyed awareness are as good as it gets – at least until you get the chance to catch up on sleep properly.
Catching Up on Sleep Requires Several Days/Weeks of Regular, Normal Sleeping
Some experts refer to chronic sleep loss in terms of ‘Sleep Debt’ : the amount of sleep you should be getting minus the amount of hours that you are actually asleep. As per the recommendations of the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of regular and healthy sleep for adults aged 18 to 64 is 7 to 9 hours per night. So, if you’ve slept for just 5 to 6 hours in the last 2 days, you may have accumulated a sleep debt of 4 or 2 hours. And that’s just for your run-of-the-mill 2-day all-nighters. It’s even worse for shift workers who sometimes get only 5 to 6 hours of sleep per night for weeks in a row. This includes doctors and nurses, who could be racking up upwards of 8 hours of sleep debt every week.
Ironically, in order to fulfill their duties, our healthcare professionals are putting their own personal health at risk:
Studies have shown that accumulated sleep debt could lead to worsened vision, car accidents (Google: microsleep), memory problems, and lightheadedness. If left unaddressed, long-term sleep deprivation increases a person’s risk of developing obesity and heart disease.
So how do you fix this problem?
According to Lawrence J. Epstein, medical director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers, the best way to pay off this debt is by getting back into a healthy and natural sleeping pattern. In order to truly ‘catch up on sleep’, you need to pay your sleep debt in full. And the creditor only accepts deposits of several hours per day.
No matter how busy you are, you need to find time in the following days and weeks to make up for lost sleep. During this recovery or ‘catching up’ period, you must allow your body to fall asleep when you are tired and awaken when it’s ready. It’s best not to use alarm clocks so your body can more efficiently adjust to a natural sleep-wake cycle.
Ideally, in order to truly erase sleep debt, you need to maintain a regular sleep schedule that gives you 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night for several months in a row.
This may be difficult for doctors, nurses, long-distance cargo truck drivers, pilots, janitorial services staff, other shift workers, freelancers, and people who have more than 10 to 12-hour workdays.
Be that as it may, the only way to get back into a natural sleeping pattern is to somehow design a schedule that can give you at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
To recap, you need to remember 2 things:
- If you’re just waking up from a 10-hour sleep preceded by one or several days/nights of sleep deprivation, MAKE THE MOST OUT OF THE FIRST COUPLE HOURS THAT YOU’RE AWAKE. Later in the day, you won’t feel as chirpy as you did in the morning as the effects of sleep-deprivation/accumulated sleep debt sets in.
- ERASE SLEEP DEBT BY GETTING BACK INTO A NATURAL SLEEPING PATTERN. The only cure for the effects of long-term sleep deprivation is long-term sleep regulation.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, look for safe and drug-free insomnia treatment options that promote natural sleep.
If Peter Mutuc isn’t sculpting, writing, editing, drawing, skating, cycling, wrestling with his Labrador, or actively regulating his sleeping patterns through at least 150 minutes of weekly exercise, he’s usually just online, creating and developing web content for One Bed Mattress. Peter is also manage One Bed Facebook and Twitter.