How to Make Up for a Sleep Debt

By Brian Acton

The average adult needs about seven to nine hours of sleep on a daily basis to function properly and get the full health benefits of a good night’s rest. But according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in three American adults consistently don’t get enough sleep.

A lack of quality sleep can lead to poor health outcomes and psychological issues such as depression and stress. If you aren’t getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, you may be carrying a sleep debt: when you short yourself enough sleep on a regular basis, you owe it to your body to catch up on that missed sleep before you risk burning out.

Here’s how to make up for a sleep debt.

  1. Make Time for Sleep

This may seem obvious, but you can’t get a good night’s rest if you don’t make time for it. If late bedtimes or early mornings are causing you to miss much needed rest, it may be time to remove some obligations from your calendar. Of course, work and family responsibilities can’t always be avoided, but if you can remove some things from your calendar or adjust your daily routines, you could find some extra time for shuteye.

If you’ve been shorting yourself on sleep for decades, you may need a long break in the form of a vacation without too many obligations (don’t plan a weeklong road trip or fill your day with stressful chores).

  1. Catch Up Gradually

The key to catching up on your sleep is to do so gradually - you can work on moving up your bedtime or moving back your wakeup time by 15 minutes each week until you reach the desired amount of sleep. Relying too much on daytime naps or long blocks of sleep on the weekends can actually do more harm than good as it can disrupt your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates your sleep patterns.  

  1. Establish a Consistent Bedtime

You should strive to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Consistent bedtimes and wakeup times help regulate your circadian rhythm and train your body to naturally fall asleep and wake up at an optimal time. It’s also the best way to ensure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep.

  1. Get Some Exercise

When you aren’t getting enough rest, exercise can seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But working out is good for your body and mind, and just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can increase the amount of deep sleep you get. You don’t need to be an elite athlete either - a brisk walk, jog, or bike ride could be all you need. Avoid exercising within an hour or two of bedtime, as your endorphin levels need time to return to baseline and your brain needs time to wind down.

  1. Avoid Caffeine, Alcohol and Electronics

As you work to catch up on sleep, there are several things you should avoid before bed:

  • Caffeine’s effects can last up to six hours and prevent you from falling asleep, so avoid consuming caffeine within six hours of bedtime.
  • Alcohol can affect your sleep quality and cause you to wake up at night, so frequent or excessive alcohol consumption is discouraged.
  • The blue light emitted from television, phones, and tablet screens disrupts the production of melatonin, which helps you fall asleep. Avoid screens before bedtime.


  1. Don’t Fall Behind Again

Once you’re in the habit of sleeping seven hours or more each night, try to be consistent. Over time, your body and mind should begin to feel more rested. If you stay committed and avoid falling back into old habits, your new sleeping schedule will become second nature.

  1. See a Doctor

Not all sleeping problems can be corrected with lifestyle adjustments, and it’s possible your sleep problems could be part of an underlying problem or health condition. If your efforts to get more sleep are getting you nowhere, make an appointment to discuss the issue with your doctor.



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