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The Art of Sleep

Science of sleep: Is it possible to catch up on lost sleep?

In today’s always-on lifestyle, getting your full eight hours isn’t often easy. From napping to weekend lie-ins, we explore whether sleep debts can be repaid

Woman reaching to switch off an alarm clock

As important as sleep is to our health and wellbeing, research shows that two-thirds of adults living in developed nations are failing to get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night. The factors for this are complex and manifold, ranging from long work hours and having young children to the usage of tablets and smartphones, as well as overindulging in caffeine or alcohol before bed.

Whatever the reason, the result remains the same; sleep deficit, also known as ‘sleep debt’, which occurs when those precious eight hours aren’t achieved. Even the loss of one hour has a knock-on effect on our mental concentration and physical stamina the next day, while getting less than six hours can negatively impact the cardiac, respiratory and metabolic systems (especially if it becomes a regular occurrence).

Despite these implications, it’s just not always possible to get the recommended quota of sleep – especially during the week. But is it possible to catch up on lost sleep and ‘repay’ our sleep debts?

Even the loss of one hour has a knock-on effect on our mental concentration and physical stamina the next day

On napping

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a ‘power nap’ – a short segment of sleep designed to give the body a hit of energy, typically taken during the day. Throughout history, such significant figures as Leonardo da Vinci, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein have all extolled the advantages of a good nap.

Studies show that even a short sleep of 15-30 minutes can refresh levels of alertness and physical performance, and also improve the mood. Additionally, as this type of nap isn’t long enough for the body to enter the deep-sleep stage, it won’t leave you feeling overly groggy – aka sleep inertia – or detract from night-time sleep.

Even a short sleep of 15-30 minutes can refresh levels of alertness and physical performance

However, while the occasional nap can provide relief to the super-tired, many experts advise against a culture of regular napping during the day, as it may interrupt the natural tiredness that builds up in the body during the day – leaving you more awake at night.

Sleeping in

For many, the arrival of the weekend – or a holiday – signals a time to rest and relax, which can often manifest in a lazy lie-in or two. Enjoyably indulgent as these are, studies show that you should avoid sleeping more than two hours later than your usual wake-up time, otherwise you may throw off your internal body clock when it’s time to go back to your usual routine. Additionally, though a lie-in may leave you feeling more rested initially, your body will still be feeling the aftereffects of sleep deficit, i.e. reduced focus and attention. 

While these measures can be beneficial in the short term, it’s important to remember that naps and lie-ins don’t replace the need for getting the right amount of sleep in the first place, as the body still has to work harder to recover from inadequate rest. Just like accruing charges on a credit card proves costly in the long run, it’s best to avoid sleep debt altogether when possible.



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