Ways to Pay Off Your Sleep Debt and Avoid Sleep Deprivation Effects

Increasing Total Sleep Time and Naps May Be a Good Place to Start

Sleep deprivation and a sleep debt can be dangerous while driving and can be paid off with more sleep at night and napping
Manuela Krause / Getty Images

It is no fun being in debt, especially if you are running a debt of sleep. Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences to both health and well-being. Learn ways that you can pay off your sleep debt and avoid the adverse side effects of getting too little sleep.

Why Do I Have a Sleep Debt?

If you are feeling too sleepy, you might wonder why. The most common reason is that you are simply getting insufficient sleep to feel rested. Without enough hours of shuteye, you will feel sleepy during the day. Why does this occur?

Sleep is, at least in part, a process by which chemicals that cause sleepiness are cleared from the brain. The most commonly cited culprit is called adenosine. Wakefulness increases the levels of adenosine, which is a byproduct of metabolism (or energy use) throughout the body. The longer you are awake, the more adenosine accumulates, making you feel sleepy. Sleep clears it out and gradually increases alertness.

In order to optimize this process, you have to allow enough time for the adenosine to be removed. In short, you need to meet your sleep needs. These needs vary based on your age, genetic tendency, and other factors. Some people need less sleep, while others need more. Sleep needs typically decrease as we become older. If you require 8 hours of sleep to feel rested, but you only get 6 hours, you will start to build a sleep debt.

Remember that poor quality sleep due to obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep disorders may also affect sleep. These conditions can contribute to feeling sleepy during the day, despite adequate hours of rest at night.

The Effects of Remote and Recent Sleep Deprivation

If you have accumulated a sleep debt, you may wonder: What are the consequences and can they be reversed? There is good news and bad news on this front. The good news is that recovery sleep, in which adequate hours of sleep are obtained, can be very effective in reversing the short-term ill effects. If you have had a great night of sleep after recently not getting enough, you know how wonderful this can feel. Many of the acute physical effects of sleep deprivation reverse very quickly with just a few nights of sufficient sleep.

The bad news is that you can’t make up for sleep you lost months or even years before. Unfortunately, this ship has likely sailed. There may be long-term consequences of inadequate sleep, but it’s hard to predict whether lasting damage has occurred and to what degree changing your ways may help. More research is needed in large populations to answer these questions. Nevertheless, getting yourself the rest you need may help you to feel and function better almost immediately.

How to Pay Off a Sleep Debt

If you are getting inadequate sleep to the point that you are experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation, you will want to review these simple ways to pay down your accumulating sleep debt:

Try to extend your sleep time.

This can be accomplished by going to bed earlier or by delaying your wake time. It is best to add time back incrementally (such as in 15-minute extensions) until you get adequate rest. Avoiding the use of an alarm clock will allow you the sleep that you need to feel rested. Make certain to not overextend the amount of time you are spending in bed or you may begin to experience insomnia. As an example, if you need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested and you start to spend 10 hours each night in bed, in time you will undoubtedly spend 2 hours awake each night. Keep your sleep schedule regular and get morning sunlight to enhance these benefits. 

Take a nap.

If the period of sleep overnight is a feast, naps are like sleep snacks. It is possible for you to make up for lost time with sleep at other times of the day by napping. Most people will nap easiest in the early to mid-afternoon. Short naps (such as 15 to 30 minutes) can be refreshing, but longer naps lasting hours may be required to make up for significant sleep deprivation. Caffeine naps may be helpful by enhancing the blockage and natural removal of adenosine, the signal for sleep. 

Sleep in on the weekend.

Many people use this technique: Saturday and Sunday mornings allow for extra sleep. If you have to wake early on weekdays, you may find that you gradually accumulate a sleep debt. By the time the weekend rolls around, you may pay this off by sleeping in. It’s almost as if you hit a reset button on your debt each week. This is sometimes called "social jet lag," recognizing the impacts on the body's circadian rhythm. This accommodation may be better than perpetuating a sleep debt, but it may not be preferred as you may suffer from sleep deprivation effects during the week.

Make use of caffeine in limited ways.

Caffeine blocks the signal for adenosine. As a result, after enjoying some coffee, tea, or soda pop, it’s natural to feel more awake. These effects are relatively short lived. As a result, you may need to periodically have another beverage to benefit. Caffeine cannot overpower profound sleep deprivation, so it may have a limited role as the sleep debt grows.

Avoid drowsy driving.

If there is one thing you must do in the context of sleep deprivation, it is this: Do not drive drowsy. If you are too sleepy to drive, simply do not get behind the wheel. If you are already driving, pull safely off the road and rest. Sleep debts can contribute to drowsiness with driving, and this is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents. Research suggests the risk for accidents can be as high as driving while intoxicated. Turning up the radio and rolling down the windows do not help; sleep-deprived people in driving simulators will still crash their cars. It’s not worth the risk.

A Word From Verywell

For those who continue to struggle from the effects of sleep deprivation, get help from an expert. Speak with a board-certified sleep specialist. There are other potential causes of poor sleep, affecting both quantity and quality, including insomnia and sleep apnea. If you do not feel rested, despite your best efforts, get the diagnosis and treatment you need. You will be glad that you did.

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Additional Reading

  • Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 6th edition, 2016.