There’s nothing more important than sleep for a healthy mind and body — but sometimes, getting enough can prove elusive. Work, friends, family, stress, meal prep, workouts, and late-night Netflix binges can all get in the way of a solid night’s sleep.
After so many restless nights you may wonder: How do you catch up on sleep? Is catching up on sleep even possible?
Can You Catch Up On Sleep?
Whether or not you can catch up on sleep depends on how much sleep you’ve lost over how long a period, says Katie Golde, certified sleep science coach.
If you’re talking about short-term sleep deprivation — like missing a few hours over one or two nights — then a few extra hours of sleep on the weekend may be enough to help you “catch up” and feel well rested.
But if skimping on sleep has become a habit, catching up isn’t so easy.
“If you’re dealing with chronic long-term sleep deprivation — meaning you’re not getting the recommended amount of sleep per night for weeks or months — one weekend of extra sleep won’t be enough to catch up,” Golde says.
Long-term sleep deprivation, aka “sleep debt,” can affect your mood, your memory, your appetite, and your overall health. It takes consistent sleep, night after night, to start reducing those negative effects.
Costs of Running a Sleep Debt
Many of us use the weekends to compensate for what we lose in both sleep and social activity during the week, staying out late and sleeping in even later. But in our efforts to wipe out a sleep deficit, we can create what sleep experts call “social jetlag.”
“Social jetlag is a circadian disruption that is brought on by changing our schedules from the weekday to the weekend. It causes our internal clock to be out of sync with the external clock,” explains Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona.
It’s kind of like the jetlag you experience when you travel across time zones. But while your body can adapt to this pretty well during a trip to Hawaii, constantly shifting your bedtime and wake time week after week can adversely affect your health.
“Doing it once or twice isn’t a big deal, but living your life this way can create disequilibrium.” This throws off your internal systems and makes them less efficient because they’re trying to readjust rather than perform their jobs, he adds.
But don’t freak out. This doesn’t mean you need to give yourself a curfew and set your alarm on weekends. Think about it the way you do your diet, Grandner suggests.
“On the weekends, you may eat out and not eat as healthy as you normally do,” he says. “It’s not going to kill you as long as you maintain balance. Don’t worry about a little bit here and there — worry about the overall pattern.”
Sleep assessment: How bad is your social jetlag?
The first step to getting more sleep is to observe how you’re currently sleeping. For a month, keep record of when you go to bed and when you wake up, and consider also tracking when you eat and exercise, recommends W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution.
Then, after 30 days, calculate the difference between your earliest and latest bedtime, wake time, and other times. How often do you deviate from your “normal” times and by how much?
“If you go out and tear it up twice a month, have your fun,” he says. If your routine is more like a Jackson Pollock than a pattern, determine what you can do to make small improvements. Can you exercise and eat dinner at the same time every day? That can make a difference, Winter says, because our internal clocks love consistency.
How to Catch Up on Sleep
You don’t need to obsess about doing everything at the exact same second daily, nor do you have to accept feeling tired when it’s been a rough week. There are ways you can catch up on your sleep without completely throwing off your body. Try some of these expert tips and see what works for you.
1. Always get up at the same time
If possible, go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. “This helps to balance your circadian rhythm and also helps cue your body so it knows it’s time for bed,” Golde says.
Simply set a reminder on your phone to get ready for bed each night, and another to wake up each morning (yep, even on weekends). Then, upon waking, have something to eat, walk around to get sunlight exposure, and then see how you feel.
“This will at least keep your rhythm of wake, meal timing, and light exposure in the morning,” Winter says.
2. Or go ahead and sleep in — a little
An extra hour, maybe a little more, is OK, according to Grandner. “I’m not saying don’t sleep in, because sometimes the extra sleep you get on weekends is good,” he says.
But sleeping in isn’t going to fix your sleep deprivation, and it’s not like you can sleep five hours on weeknights and “erase” that sleep debt by snoozing all weekend.
Try as much as you can to be consistent and don’t lie in bed awake all Sunday morning. If you want to be lazy, go be lazy on the couch. Otherwise you’ll start to associate your bed with being awake, rather than sleeping, and that’ll make it harder to nod off.
3. Power down
Taking a hot bath or reading a book may help you power down your mind and body at the end of the day, Golde says. Power down your devices, too — the blue light from screens may disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
4. Avoid alcohol before bed
You might think that relaxing with a drink before bed will help you sleep better, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol before bedtime may interfere with restorative REM sleep. (And the middle-of-the-night bathroom trips don’t help.)
“Even a glass of wine or beer can have a negative effect on the quality of your sleep,” Golde says.
5. Prepare for rowdy nights
Your friend’s 30th is this weekend, and there’s no way you’re leaving the bar to be in bed at 11. That’s fine. Grandner suggests preparing for it. “Bank really good sleep during the week,” he says, and only stay out that one night, not both Friday and Saturday.
6. Take a power nap
Naps aren’t just for kids. Adults can certainly use them, but you need to be strategic.
When we sleep, we alternate between light sleep and deep sleep. “You don’t want to wake up in deep sleep. If you do, you will feel grumpy, tired, and sluggish,” Grandner says.
This is why you only want to nap for 20 to 30 minutes, tops. This length will keep you in light sleep and help you feel less tired and better overall.
And the earlier you can nap, the better. Winter recommends a morning nap (after waking at your normal time), but Grandner says a bit later can work.
Just keep in mind that the farther in advance of your normal bedtime, the better your internal clock will realize you’re not trying to get your night’s sleep — and keep you from sinking into deep sleep.
7. Go to bed earlier
This one can be harder, and the last thing you want to do is get into bed and just lie there. However, you can make it happen.
Your plan starts in the morning. Expose yourself to bright light as early as you can to set your internal clock for the day, which may help you feel tired earlier in the evening, Grandner says.
At night, starting about an hour before bed, dim the lights and don’t do anything too mentally engaging. That means no work and no good TV shows.
It also helps to have a regular bedtime routine and to use your bed only for sleep and sex. That way your body associates crawling under the sheets with getting your Zzzs. Whatever you do, “don’t underestimate the power of just 30 minutes’ extra sleep,” Winter says.