How to Make Up for Lost Sleep

If you’ve been shorting yourself on sleep, it’s time to pay up. Your body keeps track of its sleep debt — the hours here and there that you’re undersleeping. And it can add up to some serious consequences. Find out what happens when you’re sleep-deprived, and learn some tips to repay your sleep debt.

How much sleep does a person need?

In a nutshell, we need sleep to survive. It helps to regulate and repair our bodies like nothing else can. But how much sleep we need varies from person to person.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, some variables to assess when determining the right amount of sleep for you include:

  • How happy and healthy you feel on a certain amount of sleep
  • Any health issues, such as being overweight, or risk for disease
  • Sleep problems, such as snoring or sleep apnea
  • A dependency on caffeine or other stimulants
  • Whether you feel sleepy while driving

Because there are so many variables at play, the National Sleep Foundation tasked an expert panel with determining the optimal sleep range for different age groups. This is what the group recommends:

  • 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours
  • 4 to 11 months: 12 to 15 hours
  • 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours
  • 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours
  • 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours
  • 14 to 17 years: 8 to 10 hours
  • 18 to 64 years: 7 to 9 hours
  • 65 years and older: 7 to 8 hours

So what happens when people don’t get the sleep they need? They might start feeling the effects of sleep deprivation.

The consequences of sleep deprivation

Male businessman yawning in office

A lack of sleep can be extremely detrimental to your health. Some short-term problems include reduced alertness, impaired memory, irritability and stress. You also might eat more — and not always reach for healthy foods. “Since hormones are regulated during sleep, when you are sleep deprived, your hunger hormones become out of whack, which increases feelings of hunger and decreases satiety,” according to Mayo Clinic.

And the problems get worse with chronic sleep deprivation. An accumulation of sleep debt “is associated with weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression, among other health risks,” Mayo Clinic says. “In addition, when you don’t get enough sleep, you may experience increased body aches and pains, reduced immune function and impaired performance at work.”

What do you do when fatigue is pummeling your body? Settle your sleep debt.

Repaying your sleep debt

Just like paying off a mortgage or credit card, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to repaying sleep debt. “Fortunately, sleep doesn’t charge interest on the unpaid balance, or even demand a one-for-one repayment,” according to Harvard Health. “It may take some work, but you can repay even a chronic, longstanding sleep debt.”

Short-term sleep debt

If you have an extra busy week and end up sleeping less each night, it’s pretty simple to reimburse your body. Harvard Health says to add a few hours of sleep on the weekend and an extra hour or two each following weekday until your debt is repaid.

But warns not to sleep in too much on the weekends. Doing so could throw off your sleep cycle, “making it harder to fall asleep on Sunday night. And that could mean starting your Monday with an even bigger sleep deficit than before.”

Long-term sleep debt

Maybe you’re a new parent or juggling multiple jobs, and you can’t remember the last time you truly felt refreshed. You, too, can get out of sleep debt in just a few weeks, according to Harvard Health.

At first, you might have to lighten your schedule to dedicate time to your health. “Turn off the alarm clock and just sleep every night until you awake naturally,” Harvard Health says. “At the beginning, you may be sleeping 12 hours or more a night; by the end, you’ll be getting about the amount you regularly need to awake refreshed.”

After you’ve repaid your body for the lost sleep, it’s just a matter of staying out of debt by committing to healthy sleep habits.

How to improve sleep quality

woman stretching in bed in the morning

The best way to combat sleep debt is to prevent it from accumulating. And that means getting enough quality sleep every night.

The National Sleep Foundation offers some tips to improve your sleep:

  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule, and create a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Make sure your bedroom is set up for sleep — comfortable bedding, quiet, dark, etc.
  • Exercise every day (but not right before bed).
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol, as well as electronic use, before bed.
  • Track your sleep via a sleep diary, app, wearable device, etc.

Furthermore, Harvard Health recommends only napping if necessary, as naps can throw off your sleep schedule. If you still feel drowsy during the day after attempting to improve your sleep, see a doctor. You might have an underlying issue that’s affecting your sleep quality.

There’s no one right way to make up for lost sleep. But as long as you have the mindset that getting enough quality sleep is a necessity and not a luxury, you’ll be on your way to living a sleep debt-free life.

Main image credit: Vera_Petrunina/Thinkstock


Marie W
Marie W1 months ago


Sue H
Sue H2 months ago

Helpful information, thanks.

Lara A
Lara A2 months ago


Ellie L
Past Member 2 months ago

thanks for sharing

Carole R
Carole R2 months ago

Thanks for the ideas.

Olivia H
Olivia H2 months ago


Beth R
Alice R2 months ago

Thanks very much

Paulo R
Paulo R2 months ago


Tabot T
Tabot T2 months ago

Thanks for sharing!

Carla G
Past Member 2 months ago