It’s 4 am, and you’re awake. We’ve all been there. Probably more than we like to admit. We know what the day after a sleepless night holds –– dependency on coffee, you’re distracted, and just not on your best. But after a few days of good sleep, you’re back to normal… or are you?

A new September study suggests that recovering from sleep deprivation takes longer than you think, even if you’re young. The study found that participants in their 20s who slept 30% less for ten days took at least a week to restore cognitive function. 

Jeremi Ochab, Ph.D., lead researcher and assistant professor at Jagiellonian University in Poland, says, “Your actual performance in demanding tasks can be lowered, and your patterns of behavior slightly disturbed, even for as long as a week after an extensive period of partial sleep loss.”

Our brains need sleep to function, and having a high rate of sleep debt can have real-world effects on our lives. Here’s what you need to know. 

What happens if you don’t sleep enough?

We have to mention that this is a very small study with under 20 participants. That said, it adds to the wealth of knowledge on how sleep deprivation affects the brain. For instance, we covered a past study that revealed that sleeping less than six hours a night increases your risk for dementia and drops in cognitive function. However, this is one of the first studies that focus on the recovery process, not just how a lack of sleep impacts your body. 

In addition to monitoring brain function and mood through surveys, researchers also required that participants take the Stroop test before and after the period of sleep deprivation. The Stroop test allows researchers to gauge how quickly the brain processes information. After the ten days of compromised sleep, participants’ accuracy scores dropped, and their response time slowed by 7%. 

So why does any of this matter? 

That’s a fair question. True, a 7% drop in response time for people in their 20s might not mean much, even if it is statistically significant. But let’s think about it in real-world situations. Say you have a high-stakes job –– like a surgeon or a person who operates heavy machinery. A drop in performance or reaction time can have serious negative consequences. Not to mention the thousands of car crashes caused by drowsy driving. 

If that wasn’t enough, sleep deprivation is also associated with serious long-term on your body. Including, but not limited to, a weakened immune system, heart attacks, diabetes, and hypertension. Not sleeping well is going to impact your body on multiple levels, both long and short-term. 

Tips for recovering from sleep deprivation

Unfortunately, the study has no magic number of days for when you are fully back to your baseline. Some factors –– like memory –– will take longer to catch up, even if you physically feel rested. A night or two of regular sleep just won’t cut it. The impact of sleep deprivation lingers for a week or longer. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to help the process along.

Get back to your regular sleep routine

Every so often, something keeps us awake at night. It happens to all of us. The best thing you can do for yourself when you’ve not been getting enough sleep is to try and fall back into your sleep routine. Our bodies like routines, and they are begging to get back on them. 

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. So be intentional. Turn off your tv, put away your phone, and focus on getting ready for bed. An hour or two before bed, try to do activities that relax you –– like taking a bath or reading a book. Light yoga is also a great option. 

Take naps, but be careful

We’re not nap shamming. In fact, we love to take naps! Naps can be a powerful tool if used correctly. Napping has been shown to help decrease stress, reduce fatigue, and put you in a better mood. However, if you’re not careful, napping can throw off your sleeping schedule even further. Keep these three things in mind if you’re going to nap:

  • Don’t nap too long. 
  • If it’s late in the day, skip the nap.  
  • Don’t rely on coffee or sugar to wake you up after.  

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

We all know sleep deprivation is bad for us. That doesn’t stop us from racking up sleep debt. While you can’t truly “catch up” on sleep, there are things you can do to help your situation. The best thing you can do is try and return to your regular sleeping routine. The best solution to not get enough sleep is to sleep!