Can Sleep Debt Be Paid Off?

Voluntarily, taking sleep debt is a piece of cake. No credit status inquiries or repayment schedule and the prize, time, is on your account without delay. Sleep debt is used, most of all, to purchase extra time for you.

Voluntary sleep debt can also be taken in hopes of boosting productivity and achieving, for instance, better, tidier, or more productive versions yourself, your apartment, or your work life. On the other end, sleep debt is also used to get more time to relax. Paradoxical? Typically the loan hours tend to take place in the evenings, although earlier waking up times and taking sleep debt in the mornings (often for productivity-centered reasons) are currently trending.

Taking sleep debt would make a lot of sense if the extra time gained could be used to increase your wellbeing on such a scale that the profits would overcome the long-term deficits. If this is not the case, however, the deal would be far from lucrative.

Science has tried to answer this question, too. Studies indicate that reaching a balance, where ongoing lack of sleep from night to night would pay off, is pretty hard to achieve. An optimist might still think that both shorter sleep and good health can be obtained at the same time, for example, by following a healthy diet meticulously, exercising regularly, or even waking up every day at 5 a.m. for a morning run.

However, you can’t back the currency of sleep debt by lifestyle choices alone. The sleep creditor has numerous ways of collecting interest from your body. But surely, sleeping a few extra hours is enough to get the debt off your back? Or is it? Can sleep debt ever be fully repaid?

The most common repayment days for sleep debt are on the weekends. Usually, the lost sleep is compensated by lying in bed for longer. However, a recent study found out that restricting sleep to five hours during the weekdays and repaying the accumulated debt on weekends resulted in stronger appetite, weight gain, decreased insulin sensitivity and a delay in the rhythm of the inner clock (which again can lead to a treacherous sleep debt cycle). All this happened in just two weeks.

The problems seemed to be associated with irregular sleep-wake rhythms rather than lack of sleep. Therefore, it seems that repaying the debt became a major part of the problem itself. Instead of freeing one from the debt, the payback brought new issues with it.

Sleep deprivation experiments have shown that the effects of sleep debt are not straightforward. For example, if sleep is restricted to 4–6 hours for two weeks, a person will reach the maximum subjective feeling of exhaustion already in five days. However, alertness and reaction time keep on decreasing every day even after this.

The effects of repaying sleep debt are irregular in the same way. The subjective feeling of tiredness is faster and easier to overcome than the impact on health – such as gaining weight. It does not mean that compensating for lost sleep by sleeping extra would be utterly useless. It quickly gets you rid of the fatigue and helps to recover from the strain caused by sleep deprivation. If you have sleep debt and feel worn out, you should definitely listen to your body and get some sleep.

Every night is a one of a kind event that does not stay on hold for repayment. The previous night affects how and what we feel, learn, and experience this very day. It leaves its mark on countless incidents and possibilities every day – also the ones that never happened. Therefore, sleep debt cannot be paid off in full. The laws of economics do not apply to sleep. Other than that, only a few of us get through life without any debt.

Anu-Katriina Pesonen
Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology

Anu-Katriina Pesonen
Sleep research; Professor of developmental and clinical psychology, University of Helsinki