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Medicine or Malarkey: Can you repay your “sleep debt?”

Ah, sleep. If you’re like millions of Americans, you’re not getting enough.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends a minimum of seven hours of quality sleep a night.

Sleeping less than that is linked with increased risk for obesity, stroke, and poor mental health.

The good news is that there’s a solution! You may have heard that “once you lose sleep, you can’t get it back,” but research shows it actually is possible to pay back your “sleep debt.”

Every March, National Sleep Awareness Week highlights the importance of sleep health and how quality sleep can improve your life in a variety of ways. However, sleep health is vitally important to keep in mind all year long. Let’s explore short-term versus long-term sleep debt — and how to fix them!

Short-term sleep debt

Short-term sleep debt is when you generally get enough sleep but experience a rough week or two — maybe working to meet an urgent deadline or caring for a sick child.  When that happens, experts recommend adding 1-2 extra hours of sleep every night (or during naps on the weekend) until you’ve paid back the number of hours you lost.

Long-term sleep deficit

Most of us are dealing with a long-term sleep deficit, which is trickier to resolve.

“If you’ve shorted yourself on sleep for decades, you won’t be required to put in a Rip Van Winkle–like effort to repay the hours of missed slumber,” according to Harvard Medical School. “Nonetheless, it could take a few weeks to recoup your losses.”

Sleep Vacation

Experts suggest taking a sleep vacation — a stretch of days with no plans where your main goal is to turn off any alarms and let your body keep sleeping each morning until you wake up naturally. At first, you may find yourself sleeping 12+ hours a night, but you’ll know your sleep debt is settled when you finally level off into a regular, reasonable amount of sleep that has you waking up around the same time every morning with energy in the tank.

By the way, boosted energy is just one of the benefits of getting enough sleep. In addition to lowering your risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, you may find yourself enjoying better memory and even catching fewer colds, thanks to a boosted immune system!

If you don’t have the luxury of scheduling a sleep vacation, all is not lost. Even within the confines of a busy lifestyle, you can follow research-backed tips for better sleep, including:

Here’s hoping you’re catching Z’s instead of counting sheep tonight!