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Specialist Advice — 17 minutes

Is catching up the solution to your sleep debt?

March 15th 2022

Sleep care team
Sleep care team

Work, family, household chores, leisure activities... sometimes days are not long enough for everything that needs to be done, and they spill over into nights. These crazy days often become weeks, and sleep deprivation builds up. Weekend mornings can then be seen as a real lifesaver and the only time to recuperate.

Is this phenomenon, called “catch-up sleep,” an effective strategy to reduce the sleep debt that builds up during the week? Also, are the hours gained on Saturdays and Sundays of the same quality as those lost during the week?

How much sleep do we need each day?

Before measuring our weekly sleep debt and figuring out how to get it back, we need to assess our daily needs. To help with this estimation, a research team from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in the United States sifted through 300 scientific publications. Through this analysis, they were able to paint a picture of average sleep requirements based on age.


This infographic shows that the number of hours of sleep required per night is inversely related to age and decreases with age. On the other hand, it varies little between the ages of 18 and 65.

Sleeping based on your own needs

These data represent an average, and each individual’s needs must be based on a variety of factors:

  • How you feel after eight hours of sleep (e.g. for an adult)
  • Specific health problems
  • Number of calories burned each day (high or low)
  • Level of alertness required for daily activities
  • Whether or not you have problems sleeping
  • Need for caffeine to get through the day
  • Difference in hours of sleep between workdays and days off

The ideal amount of sleep varies from person to person, depending on their physiology and current situation.

However, while most adults have a good idea of how many hours they should be getting, there are a number of reasons why they may not be able to achieve this. And after too many sleepless nights, sleep deprivation builds up.[1]

What is a sleep debt?

Sleep debt refers to the number of hours of sleep we are lacking at the end of each night. In other words, it is the difference between the ideal number of hours of sleep and the actual number of hours. These lost hours accumulate over the course of the week and represent our body’s sleep debt.

The average person is thought to get about eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Based on this estimate, a person who sleeps seven hours each night would increase their daily sleep debt by one hour. This represents a debt of five hours from Monday to Friday. It is then tempting to try to “repay” this debt by sleeping in on the weekend.

Does catching up on sleep help?

Mathematically speaking, it is entirely possible to recoup four or five hours of sleep by sleeping in on the weekend. But does this extra morning sleep have the same quality as nighttime sleep?

Not quite. When we try to make up for lost sleep, we are fighting our biological clock, and our sleep is not as restorative as if we had slept longer during the week.

In fact, when we shorten our amount of sleep, we may be depriving ourselves of certain sleep phases, such as deep sleep and REM sleep (the dreaming phase), which are important for many bodily functions, such as regenerating tissues, fighting infections, consolidating memories and regulating emotions. And our Saturday and Sunday sleeping binges will not necessarily make up for this shortfall.

According to a 2019 study from the University of Colorado, sleeping more on the weekend cannot prevent the metabolic disruption caused by repeated sleep deprivation.[2] In other words, sleeping in doesn’t save our bodies from the consequences of hours lost during the week.

One of the main risks associated with catching up on sleep is the disruption of the body’s internal clock. The body secretes melatonin at the end of the day, which helps us fall asleep at night. By going to bed at irregular hours, we risk disrupting the production of this essential sleep hormone.

Similarly, waking up three or four hours later than usual can cause a jet-lag effect and further destabilize our biological clock.

Therefore, in case of fatigue, a short nap is generally preferable to a late awakening as it is less disruptive to the circadian rhythm.

Each hour of lost sleep increases the risk

To regulate sleep, your metabolism has a fundamental need for balance, but unlike an accounting balance sheet, it is not enough to reconcile assets and liabilities.

Alternating between short and long nights of sleep can eventually lead to metabolic disruption and serious illness.[2] Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of many physical and mental disorders, including:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Depression
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Ten signs you may be suffering from sleep debt

A lack of sleep results in a variety of symptoms that affect physical appearance, metabolism, cognitive abilities and behaviour. Here are the top 10 indicators [3, 4] of sleep debt:

  1. Weight gain : Lack of sleep stimulates the appetite and causes cravings for sugary and fatty foods.
  2. Physical changes : Skin tone is altered; dark circles appear under the eyes and they look puffy.
  3. More frequent illness : Lack of sleep weakens the immune system, which becomes less resistant to viruses.
  4. Memory loss
  5. Slower reaction time : Brain functions become slower.
  6. Reduced productivity : Concentration is impaired, making it difficult to complete tasks.
  7. Indecisiveness : The brain may find it more difficult to process and classify information correctly.
  8. Impulsiveness : Lack of sleep reduces inhibitions and self-control.
  9. Mood swings : Anger, nervousness, temporary feelings of hopelessness – stress management becomes more complex.
  10. Reduced libido : Exhaustion can suppress sexual and even emotional desire.

The secret: a good sleep routine

While it is not unusual to take advantage of the weekend to get a little extra sleep after an especially demanding week, it is best to avoid making a habit of it. The consequences for your physical and mental health can be disastrous.

Instead of trying to compensate for sleep deprivation, it is better to be proactive and adopt good sleep hygiene all the time. This includes correcting certain bad habits, such as using a smartphone in bed, and eventually seeing a doctor if the situation persists and the symptoms become overwhelming.

Learn to sleep better

Learn to sleep better

How can I improve my sleep hygiene? Our handy guide contains recommendations to help you get to sleep and stay asleep.

For professional support, we’re here for you.

We provide services that can help your doctor diagnose sleep disorders and determine the appropriate treatment.

Do you want to make an appointment or have questions about an equipment? Chat online with our respiratory therapists, request a callback or contact Biron Health Group’s customer service at 1 833 590-2713.

  1. Eric Sunni (mars 2021). «How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?», Sleep Foundation,
  2. Christopher M. Depner et coll. (mars 2019). «Ad libitum Weekend Recovery Sleep Fails to Prevent Metabolic Dysregulation during a Repeating Pattern of Insufficient Sleep and Weekend Recovery Sleep», Current Biology, 29(6):957-967,
  3. Eric Sunni (juin 2021). «Sleep Deprivation: What it is, its causes, symptoms, and long-term effects on physical, mental, and emotional health», Sleep Foundation,
  4. David A. Kalmbach, J. Todd Arnedt, Vivek Pillai et Jeffrey A. Ciesla (mai 2015). «The Impact of Sleep on Female Sexual Response and Behavior: A Pilot Study», The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(5):1221-1232,
Sleep care team
Sleep care team