A: The effects of an accumulated sleep debt can last for weeks-- even months--and require substantial recovery sleep. A single night of sleep restriction is more difficult to follow over subsequent nights, though it depends largely on how big the one “deficit” night is.
If it’s a night of just 30 min restricted sleep--say you stayed up a little later to watch the game-- the debt may be paid off in small chunks over the course of normal nights through a deeper sleep, with no noticeable effects on sleep need. However, if it’s complete sleep deprivation--you took the red eye homeinstead of “losing a day”--then the effects could be substantial.
Not-So-Fun Fact: Cutting back on sleep every night for a week--even by just an hour or so--could leave you feeling as though you had skipped a whole night.
On top of that, sleep debt can accumulate. If it’s a constant, severe restriction, the effects will stick around for a long time and require a large amount of extended sleep. Some sleep researches have even suggested that a single night's sleep debt could take as much as a month to pay back. You could feel "fine" and rested, but still have a lingering effects of a slept debt, such as slower reaction time and memory processing.
If your sleep debt is due to jet lag, your body's now trying to do two things--make up for missing sleep and get everything back on schedule--which could result in an even longer "pay back" period.
In regards to chronic sleep deprivation--the kind that accumulates from not getting enough during the week, then trying to play "catch up" on the weekend-- there’s no good evidence of an expiration date for sleep debt. Instead, the debt just keeps rolling over, night after night. What this means is that even after a "good night's sleep" your body is still not operating at it's full potential.
You won't have enough ooopmh for your workout routine or that pick-up softball game, which could leave you feeling frustrated. That nightly Sudoku round will be harder and take longer. On the health front, your body will be more susceptible to weight gain and the problems associated with it, such as diabetes and heart disease.
The best thing to do is to keep your balance up by getting enough sleep (7-9 hours) every night. Start working off whatever debt you have tonight. Be patient about how long that could take, but also revel in how good you feel each morning with that extra sleep. If you pay back your debt, you'll be in much better shape if you do have to stay up a little later one night, or take that red-eye.