Mahowald has a different opinion. "The average sleep requirement is about seven and a half hours," he tells WebMD. "The range is between four and 10 hours. It's genetically controlled." He says that people can't "train" themselves to get by on less sleep because they have this genetic need for a certain amount.
One of the nation's best-known advocates for more sleep, William Dement, MD, sees it this way: "If you're feeling really tired [on arising], you should go back to sleep." Dement is director of the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Research Center.
But sleeping in can be an impossibility for those with jobs, families, and other responsibilities, and thus arose the great American tradition of "catching up" on sleep during the weekend. It can be done without spending all day in bed, Mahowald says.
"You only need to make up one-third of your loss. If you're six hours down for the week, you only need two more hours on the weekend." But the sleep debt payoff only works in one direction, he says. An extra two hours on Sunday isn't "bankable" for the week ahead.
Of course, there is a temporary cure for drowsiness, one that many people see as a vital part of their existence: caffeinated drinks. "For the short haul, caffeine will give you alertness," Mahowald says. The downside is that consuming caffeine late in the day may impair your sleep later that night.
Several drug treatments are available for those who have trouble getting to sleep at night, although none is foolproof. They include prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and supplements, such as melatonin.
One researcher thinks there is excessive concern with sleep deprivation in America, and is suspicious about its source. Daniel F. Kripke, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Diego, calls the idea of a national sleep debt "charming publicity," but he believes it's a myth largely perpetuated by drug companies seeking to sell more hypnotic sedatives, which induce a medium-deep sleep for relatively short periods of time.
These particular drugs are only approved for short-term use, but Kripke says drug companies want insomniacs to keep taking them. "In over 95% of studies of sleeping pill administration, either they make the next days' performance worse or they're of no benefit," he says.