Can you ever repay your sleep debt?

How much sleep is enough sleep?

Harper's Bazaar India

Allow us to paint a picture. It’s Thursday night; you’ve just come home from a long day of hustling. You’re exhausted, and it feels like your body is about to give in any moment now. You’re in desperate need of some me time. So you order dessert, pour yourself a glass of wine, settle into your couch, and put on a new season of the show you’re currently binging. One episode after another and then another. Suddenly, it’s 2:00 a.m. An alarm goes off in your brain reminding you that you must wake up at 7:30 a.m. to make it for a 9:00 am meeting, leaving you only five-and-a-half hours of sleep. You tell yourself that the weekend is close, and if you sleep in, you’ll be okay. This isn’t the first time you’ve lost yourself to the world of OTT and sacrificed sleep, and it definitely won’t be the last.   

If this sounds familiar and you’re rolling your eyes, we are here to deliver some bad news. You’ve racked up quite a bit of sleep debt, and all the fatigue and drowsiness you constantly feel are the collectors knocking on your door. A couple of nights of disturbed sleep have more than a few side effects. Dr Pujan Parikh, consultant, Pulmonary Medicine Department, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, says, “Apart from the immediate effects like having trouble concentrating, dip in alertness, and increased irritability, sleep depravation also has long-term effects on your health. It causes high blood pressure, diabetes, lower immunity, and an increased risk of cardiac events.”  

So, can you really “catch up” on sleep by sleeping a little extra the next day? Spoiler: If you haven’t let sleep debt pile up, you may be able to. 

What is sleep debt?  

It’s time for some math. According to Dr Parikh, if a person’s typical sleep requirement is eight hours, but they are only sleeping for six hours, and if this goes on for six days, the sleep debt is calculated as the two hours they were skipping multiplied by six. So, if you followed this word problem, we’re sure you figured this person has accumulated 12 hours of sleep debt.  

According to one study, it takes four days to recover from just one hour of lost sleep. Another study found that people who reduced their sleep by five hours during the week but made up for it by sleeping extra on the weekends, still experienced the effects of sleep deprivation.  

To understand why sleep debt is worse than any debt (we exaggerate for effect), we need to understand the process of sleep. A good night’s sleep consists of 90- to 120-minute cycles. Each cycle has several stages, eventually reaching REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. As the night goes on, REM sleep cycles increase while non-REM deep sleep stages decrease. This means that when you consistently don’t get enough sleep, you miss out on the quality of sleep needed for restorative purposes like tissue repair, muscle building etc.  

However, before y'all slam your computer shut or lock your phones and wrap yourself in a blanket, know that all hope is not lost yet. However, before we get into how you can repay your sleep debt to prevent yourself from entering the sleep-deprived zombie zone, we need to talk about how much sleep you really need.  

How much sleep do you need? 

We have often heard humans need between six to eight hours of sleep. However, it’s important to understand that not everyone needs the same amount. While some people need six hours of sleep, others might need 10 hours to function. So, before you fix your sleep debt, do a little experiment. Every day give your body as much rest as it needs—meaning, sleeping only when your eyes refuse to stay open and waking up only when you feel rested. If you do this for enough days, you will see a pattern; those many hours is your body’s ideal sleep requirement.  

Now, it’s easier to work on paying off your sleep debt because you know how much really owe. 

Paying off your debt (with interest, of course) 

Luckily, if the debt is not a lot, you can do a few things. Dr Parikh says, “All a person has to do is sleep enough to complete their cycles. To get out of their sleep debt, they must sleep at least three to four hours extra on the weekends plus one to two additional hours for an entire week.”  

The only thing to remember is to not sleep more than two hours extra than you generally would; oversleeping comes with problems like grogginess. Who knew sleep was so complicated?  

Here is a reality check. If you’re experiencing chronic sleep debt, then sleeping extra one time is like a band-aid on a bullet wound. You need to make lifestyle changes and reconsider your nighttime routine.

Incentivise yourself to fall asleep by turning your room into a sleep paradise. You can invest in black-out blinders, a white noise machine, a heavy blanket, and whatever works for you.

Try going to bed at least 15 minutes earlier every night, don’t use any screens at least an hour before you sleep (re: don’t click on the ‘next episode’ and cut out that midnight doomscrolling habit), and no matter how tempted you are, avoid napping for long periods of time. 

If you work on your “sleep hygiene,” as Dr Parikh puts it, you can make consistent payments at the sleep bank and reap all its benefits.