Question:

Is it possible to “catch up on sleep” or is that just a myth or an excuse to sleep in?

Answer:

If you think of your sleep as a bank account, every night you go without getting the amount of sleep you need is like taking money out of your account. It’s easy to accumulate a sizable “sleep debt” over time. The good news is that, like other debts, this one can be repaid. But it can’t be done in one 12-hour sleep marathon if you have gone weeks or months with insufficient sleep.

The way to repay yourself is by adding an extra hour or so to your current sleep schedule. Think of it as paying yourself back in sleep installments. For many people, it takes months of adjusted sleep patterns to get out of debt. As a side note, while it’s possible to make up for lost sleep, you can’t really make a big deposit in your sleep account to get you through the lean times. Loading up on sleep for a few nights can’t carry you through subsequent nights of little or no sleep. The result is just likely to be a disrupted sleeping pattern.

Most adults need about seven hours of sleep for optimal health. You may need six or eight or even 10 hours. Everyone’s sleep needs are different. Aim for at least seven hours a night, and if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, talk with your doctor or a sleep specialist. Your caffeine intake might need to be adjusted or you might need a different bedtime routine.

Maurizio Fava, MD, is the director of the Division of Clinical Research at the Mass General Research Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of Mind, Mood, Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Fava hosts a column where he answers readers' questions related to brain health.

This article originally appeared in Mind, Mood & Memory, a publication of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, dedicated to maintaining mental fitness for middle age and beyond.

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