What is Sleep Debt, and Why Is It So Hard to Recover?

by | Last updated Feb 8, 2022

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Do you get enough rest at night, or are you constantly exhausted and dragging your feet through each day? 

Sleep deprivation is a common problem nowadays— more than one-third of American adults aren’t getting enough sleep. And because signs of sleep deprivation can appear differently from person to person, it’s not always easy to tell when someone isn’t getting enough rest.

Having the occasional night of poor sleep is probably okay, but getting insufficient sleep on a regular basis can increase your sleep debt and create both cognitive and health issues.

But what is sleep debt, and what’s the best way to recover lost sleep? It’s not as straightforward as you might think, but keep reading as we share sleep tips to help you avoid sleep debt and recover better. 

What is Sleep Debt?

A sleep debt, or sleep deficit, occurs when you get fewer hours of sleep per night than you need. For example, if you need eight hours of sleep per night but you only sleep five, then you have a three-hour debt from that night.

Your sleep debt can continue to accumulate if you are consistently unable to get enough good-quality sleep. Once it begins to build, it can be very difficult to “make up” or undo.

What Creates Sleep Debt?

At its most basic, sleep debt is caused by poor quality rest or short sleep duration. 

It’s important to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night, plus enough REM sleep and deep sleep to help you feel refreshed in the morning. Other factors that can contribute to sleep debt include:

Your daily activities can potentially contribute to your sleep debt too. Some of these can include your work or commute schedule, child care— especially with a new baby— or how close to bedtime you eat dinner or enjoy caffeine or alcohol.

Being consistently sleep-deprived can affect your health and quality of life in a number of ways. Not only can it make you feel sluggish and foggy during the day, but sleep deprivation can impact your insulin resistance, make you more likely to gain weight, increase your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, and negatively impact your memory.

In theory, a good night’s sleep should be all you need to get rid of sleep debt and keep your body and mind working at their best. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

New Research: Why It’s So Hard to Remove Sleep Debt

A recent study from Jagiellonian University in Krakow published in PLOS ONE found that when it comes to recovering from sleep debt, it’s much easier said than done.

The study observed the effects of sleep loss in healthy adults over 21 days— 4 days of regular life to establish a baseline, 10 days of chronic partial sleep deprivation, and 7 days of recovery sleep. Participants’ brain activity was measured each day, and they were given cognitive tasks to complete each day.

Researchers observed “unanimous deterioration” in all measures during the sleep restriction phase of the study. 

After 7 days of recovery and extra sleep, only one measure— mean reaction time— returned to baseline levels. The remaining measures, including accuracy, memory, and mental processing, did not.

Your brain requires uninterrupted sleep to best help your body recover from the day, build and form memories, and keep your cognitive function sharp. Chronic sleep deprivation hurts your ability to focus, learn new things, solve problems, be creative, and make decisions, among other things.

When your brain is chronically sleep-deprived, it adapts to that state of exhaustion by creating a stable, but reduced level of performance compared to your baseline. This can continue into the recovery process and prevent you from quickly and easily returning to your normal state.

Related: How Sleep Deprivation is a Brain Drain

How Long Does it Take to Recover From Sleep Debt?

It’s hard to tell for sure. In reality, “catching up” on lost sleep is more fiction than fact. 

As the above study showed, even with ample time to dedicate to catching up, you still will likely feel the effects of chronic sleep deprivation for some time.

Even relatively moderate sleep restriction can hinder your ability to live and function as normal. And you may be so used to these cognitive deficits, you may not even be aware that they exist. However, you shouldn’t have to run off fumes to get through each day.

So what can you do if you do have sleep debt?

Rather than trying to reverse the effects of chronic sleep loss, it’s better to prevent accumulating chronic sleep debt in the first place. This can be achieved through practicing healthy sleep habits.

Sleep Tips to Help You Avoid Sleep Debt

Getting sufficient sleep at night is much easier if you have a healthy routine. Here are some of our suggestions to help you get a good night’s sleep and prevent sleep debt.

  • Pay attention to your sleep needs and prioritize sleep at night. This means allowing yourself to rest when you’re tired, and not sacrificing sleep if you still have things to finish, such as work emails or home chores.
  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule— go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up at the same time each morning. What time should you go to bed each night? Here’s why you should go to bed before midnight.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene— give yourself enough time in the evening to finish your daily tasks, care for pets or children, take care of personal hygiene, and relax. We recommend 1-2 hours for this.
  • Make healthy lifestyle choices— don’t smoke, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bed, and exercise during the day.
  • Take a brief nap during the early afternoon. 20-30 minutes should be sufficient.
  • Stop using your electronic devices, like your phone, tablet, laptop, or television at least one hour before bed.
  • Keep a sleep diary or sleep journal to keep track of your sleep habits, including your bedtime, wake-up time, how many times— if any— you wake up at night, how long it takes to fall asleep. Here are other top ways a sleep journal can help improve your sleep.

If you follow these guidelines, and feel you’re consistently getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night but are still waking up feeling unrefreshed and exhausted and experience chronic fatigue throughout the day, you may have disordered sleeping.

Disordered sleeping, like obstructive sleep apnea, creates disrupted or fragmented sleep. Often you won’t even realize you aren’t getting the deep sleep or REM sleep your body needs to avoid sleep debt and fatigue.

Getting tested is easy with an in-home sleep test and is recommended if you regularly struggle to sleep and experience symptoms like loud snoring, gasping or choking during sleep, taking a long time to fall asleep, or experiencing multiple sleep interruptions per night.

It’s not easy to get rid of chronic sleep debt, but consistent restorative sleep can help you return to your normal function and prevent further debt. 

If you still struggle with inadequate sleep even after making changes, contact the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today for a consultation, especially if you think it could be a potentially life-threatening sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea. 

You can also book for an immediate and complimentary initial consultation. We can help you figure out your symptoms and get you started on the path to recovery.


Ochab, Jeremi K., et al. “Observing Changes in Human Functioning during Induced Sleep Deficiency and Recovery Periods.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0255771.

Van Dongen HP;Maislin G;Mullington JM;Dinges DF; “The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology from Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation.” Sleep, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12683469/.

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