Overview of Sleep Debt and How You Can Catch Up

It is probably no surprise if you aren't getting enough sleep at night: you can feel it in many ways. What is sleep debt? Can sleep deprivation or other sleep disorders contribute to an accumulated sleep debt? What can you do to catch up on sleep loss and pay off your sleep debt? Learn the answers about the impacts of sleep debt and sleep deprivation.

Matur man lying on bench with a book, taking a nap
Westend61 / Getty Images

What Is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt is the accumulated amount of sleep loss from insufficient sleep, regardless of cause. It most often occurs when insufficient hours of sleep are obtained to meet your individual sleep needs. This may occur due to sleep restriction, in which too few hours are spent sleeping. For example, if you need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested, but only obtain 6 hours, you will have a 2-hour sleep debt for that particular night. This may have important consequences, especially if the debt builds.

It is believed that the resulting sleep deprivation can affect daytime function. This may lead to increased daytime sleepiness, poor concentration or short-term memory, and mood problems such as anxiety, depression, and irritability. Sleep deprivation may also contribute to other long-term health consequences. There may be physical effects, hallucinations, and even the potentially increased risk of death. Pain is worsened by poor sleep. For all these reasons, you might be seeking ways to get the sleep that you need.

Are There Other Causes of Sleep Debt?

When someone does not feel rested by their sleep, it is typically because they did not obtain enough hours to meet their needs. However, are there other possible causes of poor sleep quality?

If you have a sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or circadian rhythm sleep disorders, this could likewise lead to symptoms that are similar to those that would occur with a sleep debt. Poor quality sleep is unrefreshing. Even though enough hours may be obtained, it may be fragmented and result in daytime consequences. If you wake up feeling unrefreshed, even after sufficient hours of sleep, it may be important to see a board-certified sleep physician to undergo sleep testing.

How to Catch Up and Pay Off Your Sleep Debt

The curious thing is that with sleep deprivation, you can only pay off a recent debt. For example, if you have not slept well over the past year you are not able to pay back the sleep that you’ve missed over that time. Rather, you can only get extra sleep to attempt to make up for the recent time that you lost.

Sleep debts can be paid off in various ways:

  • You can try to extend your total time in bed by going to bed earlier or sleeping later into the morning.
  • Many people catch up on the weekends by sleeping in on Saturday or Sunday.
  • Naps during the daytime may also make a payment to reduce an accumulated sleep debt.
  • Caffeine may block sleepiness symptoms, but it is no substitute for inadequate sleep at night.

Fortunately, the short-term effects of sleep deprivation are quickly reversed by getting adequate rest. One night of really great sleep can make a world of difference! Thinking and mood rebound quickly. The risk of errors, accidents, and other consequences is decreased substantially by obtaining recovery sleep. This may initially require sleeping longer than your average sleep need to make up for the recent losses. It seems that older adults can rebound quicker than the younger, but sleep deprivation affects everyone.

You might think that with the passage of time, your debts are completely forgiven and forgotten, but in the context of sleep debt, this is not so. There are serious consequences to chronic sleep deprivation, including obesity and heart disease. That's why it's important to meet your sleep needs every day by following better sleep guidelines so that you might preserve your health and well-being.

A Word From Verywell

If you struggle with insomnia or other sleep disorders that impact your ability to get restful sleep, speak with your healthcare provider about getting the assessment and treatment that you need to sleep well, avoid sleep deprivation side effects, and feel at your best.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing. Repaying your sleep debt.

  2. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: An unmet public health problem.

  3. Columbia University Department of Neurology. Sleep deprivation.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Repaying your sleep debt.

Additional Reading
  • "Repaying Your Sleep Debt." Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • "How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?" National Sleep Foundation.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.