Sleep Debt - How to Repay It

We know that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.  As students, many of us have difficulty getting that much sleep during the week, and may be getting only 5-6 hours.  Consistently getting 6 hours of sleep or less during the week can put us in a state of sleep debt.  How do we repay this debt?  Many of us “repay” this debt is by sleeping in on the weekends.

Science suggests that sleeping in on weekends in order to catch-up on the sleep you missed during the week can actually throw off you schedule even more.

According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, there are two main mechanisms that regulate your sleep patterns:

  1. Homeostcircadian-rhythmsatic Sleep Drive: your body builds up adenosine (a molecule in your body created by energy consumption) throughout the day.  At night, your levels of adenosine are highest, causing you to feel sleepy.
  2. Circadian Rhythms: your body has a circadian alerting system that keeps us alert and awake during the day.  Our circadian “clock” is thought to run on a 24-hour cycle that generally keeps us awake for about 16 hours.

The balance and interplay between these two mechanisms regulate our sleep pattern.  Sleeping in on weekends means that your body will need to readjust come Monday morning to your regular weekday schedule.  Small changes to your sleep schedule – changes of less than 1 hour – aren’t likely to affect your sleep pattern during the week.  However, large variations in your sleep schedule between weekdays and the weekend sends mixed messages to your body.

Most sleep research suggests that coming up with a regular sleep schedule AND sticking to it even on the weekends is the best option to avoid acquiring a sleep debt.  Tips for establishing a regular sleep schedule can be found here.  Alternatively, we can repay our sleep debt by adding an hour of sleep to our schedule on weekend nights or during the week.  Going to bed even 30 minutes earlier can help us start to catch up.


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