Is it Really Possible to Catch up on Lost Sleep?

3 minute read

By: Vivian Manning-Schaffel|Last updated: March 20, 2023
Biracial woman rubbing her eyes in bedroom daylight. AW457

My kid has to get up at 6 a.m. in the morning to go to school every day. As in, every. damn. day. To me, this is a travesty because I’m not a morning person. It goes against my circadian rhythms. My body wants to sleep from 12:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., so during the week, I lose an hour and a half of sleep every night and, although I’ve grown accustomed to it, as the week progresses, I feel more and more like trash. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, adults need 7 or 8 hours of sleep to function at peak capacity. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of us struggle with insomnia at some point in our lives, with about 35 percent barely clocking 6 hours per night. I’m one of those never-sleepers. Between kids and menopause, I don’t remember the last time I got 8 hours of sleep. 

Sleep has occasionally eluded me since puberty. Repose kicks my brain into overdrive as I process the myriad issues I’ve compartmentalized during the day. They scroll before me as if a ticker on a news channel until either something I’m on or pure exhaustion kicks in. I suppose this is why children often feel compelled to open up to their parents about what’s on their minds when they’re tucked in for the night; something about the easing of conscious physicality may very well pry open the portal to our subconscious minds, even if we remain conscious while it’s happening. 

Stephanie Romiszewski, Chief Medical Officer and co-founder of Sleepyhead, a U.K.-based sleep clinic, extols the virtues of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for people like me who suffer from insomnia. According to Romiszewski’s  Sleepyhead Online Course, all those self-help sleep tips you get online aren’t usually effective for those of us with chronic sleep issues. In her words: “No amount of hot warm baths before you go to bed are suddenly going to fix a rip-roaring condition.” 

As she points out, consistently great sleepers don’t usually engage in rituals that require chamomile tea, no blue screens, before-bed journaling, though those remedies do have efficacious evidence behind them. The Mayo Clinic backs this up, calling CBT-I, or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, an effective treatment for chronic sleep issues, teaching you how to slow, or even halt, the news ticker extolling the day’s events and avoid other behaviors that come between you and a good night's sleep.

Sleep deprivation can mess with your health in so many ways, among them heart issues, diabetes, slower metabolism, obesity, memory issues, a depleted immune system). Exacerbated by the good-time symptoms of menopause, like profuse night sweats a few nights a week, sleep is legitimately elusive for countless women my age. I feel like I’m engaged in a battle with my circadian rhythms. My body naturally wants to stay up until midnight and I’m tortured each weekday by a 6 a.m. wake time. My approach: Stopped fighting it and just stumble through life sleep-starved until weekends, when I attempt to make up for lost slumber. 

But is that even physically possible? Can you make up for lost sleep time?

Let’s start with the actual numbers. Tabulated as “sleep debt,” each week between the six hours I usually get and the seven to eight hours I actually need, I usually start each day behind by about one to two hours of sleep per night, which adds up to five to ten hours of sleep debt per week.

As far as whether or not I can make up my weekly deficit, the jury is kind of out. And the potential harm I could unwittingly be inflicting on my bod due to sustained sleep deprivation is something to consider. 

According to one 2019 study, there’s no way catching up on weekends can be made up or will be enough to boost my sluggish metabolism because sleep deprivation causes greater insulin sensitivity. These researchers also found that lack of sleep led to more late day snacking and weight gain. 

Another study, conducted in 2018 and published in the Journal for Sleep Research, looked at the sleep habits of more than 40,000 subjects, and their findings were rather sobering: Subjects under 65 who didn’t make up sleep on weekends when the study began were linked with a (gulp!) 52 percent higher mortality rate when compared with those who got 7 hours a night, while no association was found for longer weekend sleep. The good news from this study: the results imply that shorten weekday sleep isn’t as much of a risk factor for mortality if combined with a medium or long weekend sleep. 

A small 2016 Japanese study of young men found that “modest but long-term sleep deprivation (potential sleep debt)” can cause obesity, diabetes, and mood disorders, but more importantly, it determined that it takes more than just a good night’s sleep to put you back in black (more like three to four nights). 

For me, I’ll take sleep where I can get it. Two decent sleep cycles always make me feel better than none. It’s as if my brain recalibrates back to its full capacity. It takes me less coffee to function, I make wiser decisions, and am in a better mood. But we insomniacs with consistently early call times are kind of hosed health-wise unless we can convince our bodies to fall asleep earlier — or we can convince schools to stop asking our kids to show up at 7:20 in the morning and let them roll in at 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m., like normal people. 

Until that day, I’ll be sleeping in.

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