Home / College Life / Balance / Can You Make Up Sleep Debt?

Can You Make Up Sleep Debt?

Summer’s the time to make up for all those hours of sleep lost during the school year. Right? Well, sort of. Here's the real deal about getting your best rest.

Whether you’re doing an internship, traveling, or spending quality time at home, summers tend to be less hectic. They offer us a chance to catch up on sleep lost from nights burning the midnight oil or mornings when the alarm went off really early so you could squeeze in a little extra study time. Right?

Study resources for the courses you’re actually taking—whenever you need them.

Start here

Not so fast. Though a new study out of Sweden claims that you might make up lost sleep on weekends as long as you’re averaging enough total hours of sleep per week (49–63 hours, based on the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7–9 hours per night), most sleep experts say that a couple of weekends sleeping in won’t cancel out 9 months of shoddy snoozing.

Summer sleep hygiene

sleep debtSleep hygiene doesn’t mean showering before you climb into bed (though that can’t hurt, what with the higher temperatures and, in many places, higher humidity). The term refers to a set of healthy sleep habits—best practices—that sleep doctors have found can make the difference between a restless night and a night of rest. Sleep consultant Katie Letourneau offers a few tips to follow to get your best rest this summer.

Keep it cool. Even if you love summer’s warmth, sleeping in a cool room will promote better rest. This is because the body’s core temperature needs to drop in order for you to feel sleepy. The ideal room temperature is between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, says Letourneau.

Clean up your act. Going to sleep in unwashed sheets is like curling up in a Petri dish of bacteria, fungus, and mildew: dead skin cells, sweat, pollen, pet dander … you get the idea. Dust mites feast on this stuff and thrive in summertime humidity. Besides being gross, dirty sheets can exacerbate allergies (and stuff up noses), plus put you at risk for other viruses and infections. Wash sheets and pillows once a week to keep bacteria at bay.

Go dark. The good news: the days are longer. The bad news: Even the least bit of light can disrupt your body clock and interfere with your sleep. Shut off TVs, phones, and bright overhead lights at least 30 minutes before bedtime to prompt melatonin release. Consider blackout curtains (or blinds or shades) to keep summer’s early morning light from creeping in, Letourneau says.

Avoid late-day salty snacks. Chips, dips, pretzels, and other crunchies are the perfect picnic or beach snacks. But eating salty nibbles late in the day can leave you dehydrated and wake you up in the middle of the night feeling parched and thirsty, says Letourneau. Hydrate throughout the day so you’re not guzzling fluids to quench your thirst close to bedtime—and waking up for a 2 a.m. bathroom break.

Paying off “sleep debt”—the accumulated fatigue from failing to get enough rest—isn’t like making a lump-sum payment on your credit card after 9 months of overspending. Once you’re in the hole, you need to make some changes to your routine to get out.

“Proper sleep is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Katie Letourneau, a certified sleep consultant. Here, she digs into 5 common sleep beliefs, busts a few myths, and offers a few pointers for a better night’s rest. Read on to boost your sleep IQ!

Belief #1: Natural sleep aids such as melatonin will help you get better rest.

Taking safe and natural sleep aids, in the right amounts, might help in the short term, Letourneau says, but relying on them long term means that something’s wrong with your sleep schedule. “They’re a temporary solution—for instance, if you’re traveling overseas and you need some help adjusting to a new time zone.”

If you need help falling asleep every night under normal circumstances, you should consider what’s keeping you awake—a busy mind? Bad sleep habits?—and whether you need to rethink your evening routine.

Belief #2: Killing it at the gym right before bed will tire you out and guarantee a good night’s sleep.

Though it seems logical that a sweaty workout right before bed would wear you out, that’s not always the case. “Vigorous exercise before bedtime can backfire,” says Letourneau. Exercising raises your body temperature and your heart rate, which can keep you awake, she explains. It also triggers the release of adrenaline into your system.

That said, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2013 Sleep in America Poll, moderate or vigorous evening exercisers claimed they slept as well or better than on days when they didn’t work out. Bottom line: Research has shown over and over that working out at any point during the day will help you sleep more soundly, and wake up the next day feeling more rested, than getting no exercise. So if pumping iron or a sweaty yoga class an hour before bed doesn’t leave you tossing and turning, go for it. If it does, consider an earlier visit to the gym.

Belief #3: If you can’t fall asleep, lie in bed until you drift off.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the best way to fall asleep is to get out of bed. Otherwise you’re staring at the ceiling or the clock, stressing yourself out, Letourneau says. “Get out of bed for 10 to 15 minutes. Read a book or a magazine by a low-lit lamp. Listen to some music, or try some deep breathing or meditation. Then get into bed and try again.”

Just don’t flick on your smartphone—its blue light will suppress melatonin production, and scrolling through social feeds or emails will keep your mind active and awake.

Belief #4: A big meal late at night will make you drowsy and put you to sleep.

Whether you’ve just rolled in from the library or you’ve been engrossed in a Netflix binge and suddenly realize it’s 9:30 p.m. and you’re starving, chowing down on a whole pizza—or any big meal—right before bed is a really bad idea. Besides causing heartburn and indigestion that can disrupt your sleep, it can also cause you to wake up in a sweat, since your body generates heat as it metabolizes food.

Power napping tips

Some better options to stave off hunger: A lighter snack like Greek yogurt with honey and bananas contains sleep-promoting tryptophan. Half a turkey or peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, or whole-grain cereal and milk, also work.

Belief #5: Taking lots of naps will help refresh you.

Naps are fine—as long as you sleep for less than 30 minutes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Snoozing longer than that, however, plunges you into a deeper stage of sleep, and you’ll wake up groggy and less alert, not rested. (If you’ve got insomnia, napping isn’t recommended as it may worsen the problem.)

“Sleep debt is like adding a brick to your backpack, and power napping removes a brick,” Letourneau says. For many of us, catnaps can be a great way to log enough healthy, restorative sleep.

What Is Course Hero?

Course Hero is an online learning platform where you can access course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators.

What Is College Life?

In College Life you'll find fresh tips, videos, and expert advice to help you graduate confident and prepared.