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What Is Sleep Debt?

tired man sitting at table drinking coffee

For optimal long-term health and well-being, most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Our bodies are programmed to want healthy levels of sleep, thanks to our circadian rhythm, which serves as an internal sleep clock. However, life can be busy and hectic, and sometimes we end up sleeping poorly.

The occasional poor night’s sleep is usually no big deal. But if you ignore your internal sleep clock for too long, it can lead to a state of sleep deprivation, also known as sleep debt. Fortunately, it’s possible to “pay back” your level of sleep deprivation and get back on a healthy sleep schedule.

7 Ways to Repay Sleep Debt

  • Quantify your sleep debt
  • Develop a routine
  • Create a cool, dark sleep space
  • Try relaxation techniques
  • Nap smart
  • Exercise
  • Watch what you eat – and drink

Sleep is essential for good long-term health – it’s almost as important as food and water for our bodies’ ultimate well-being. And yet, we often treat sleep like it’s a luxury or a reward when it’s actually a necessity. You may even feel that time spent sleeping could be better spent working or being productive in some other way.

The time we spend sleeping is vitally important, and when we’re sleep deprived, things can start to go downhill pretty quickly. Studies show that prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in blood pressure and stress hormones, as well as weaken the immune system.

The good news is that you can get back on track with a healthy sleep schedule. With a few small behavioral changes, you can develop new habits that can help you pay off your sleep debt and restore your sleep schedule.

What Is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt is when you owe your body more sleep because you aren’t getting enough rest. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. A full night’s sleep gives your body plenty of time to cycle through the stages of sleep, which ensures that you get enough deep, restorative sleep. When you are sleep deprived, alertness and reaction times get slower, and memory and cognition may suffer. Eventually, it can become difficult to accurately assess your true level of sleepiness – because your sleep debt has started to feel normal.

Think of sleep debt this way – if you need eight hours of sleep to feel your best, but you only get six, you have a sleep debt of two hours. If you repeatedly get six hours of sleep, your sleep debt continues to accumulate. Like all debt, sooner or later it should be paid. A slow and steady approach is often the best way to recover your sleep schedule.

Is Sleep Debt Real?

Yes, sleep debt is real. Prolonged sleep deprivation can have severe consequences for your overall long-term health. Though sleep debt can be caused by a sleep disorder, such as clinical insomnia or sleep apnea, it’s also common among people who simply lead busy lives. Between associated health care costs and expenses related to lost productivity, sleep debt costs the United States an estimated $66 billion per year. Not only is sleep debt real, but it’s something we should all take seriously.

It’s also possible to acquire sleep debt even if you are getting 7-9 hours of sleep. Some sleep debt can be caused by circadian rhythm sleep disorders. In many of these cases, people may get enough hours of sleep, but their sleep cycles are being interrupted. Without properly cycling through deep sleep and REM states, you may wake up feeling tired and unrested. In this case, be sure to talk to your doctor about participating in a sleep study.

Symptoms of Sleep Debt

man tired from working night shift

Symptoms of sleep debt are easier to recognize early on – a few nights of poor sleep generally results in feelings of irritability, red, burning eyes, and a sense of mental fogginess or fatigue. Other symptoms include slowed reaction times, extreme daytime sleepiness, and poor concentration. Our chances of being in a car wreck also increase if we’re missing sleep. In fact, sleep debt is the culprit behind as many as 100,000 traffic accidents every year. Sleep debt has also been linked to accidents involving airplanes, ships, trains, automobiles, and power plants. And sleep debt can add up fast – a few nights in a row of poor sleep has almost the same effect on your body and mind as pulling an all-nighter.

We can treat the symptoms of sleep debt by consuming coffee or caffeinated beverages, but the only true cure is to get sufficient sleep. Caffeine and sugar may make you temporarily feel more alert, but it doesn’t do anything to address your underlying sleep debt. Caffeine works by increasing adrenaline and blocking the brain chemicals that tell you you’re sleepy, so be sure to avoid it before bedtime.

As time goes on, the effects of sleep deprivation can start to feel “normal,” and your sleep debt may become less obvious. Over time, sleep debt can lead to health problems – it’s been associated with a higher risk of diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. The higher cortisol levels often associated with sleep debt can contribute to feelings of anger and depression. Children and young adults seem most vulnerable to the effects of sleep debt, but older sleepers aren’t immune.

7 Ways to Repay Sleep Debt

You can “repay” your level of sleep debt and return your body to a healthy level of sleep. Changing your schedule and developing good habits can help you pay back that debt and give your body the restful and restorative deep sleep it needs. It’s never too late to start a healthy sleep schedule.

1. Quantify Your Sleep Debt

Just like when paying a credit card debt, the first step is to determine how much you owe. The way to calculate your sleep debt can vary, depending on whether you’re dealing with a short-term or long-term pattern of sleep deprivation. For example, if you know you missed a total of eight hours of good sleep throughout the week, you can sleep a couple of extra hours over the next few days to make up for it. But if you’re dealing with a chronic and prolonged pattern of sleep debt, it might take you several weeks to restore your circadian rhythm.

How much sleep do you need? Everyone’s a little different, so only you can define how much sleep your body needs for optimal health. If you can, ditch the alarm clock and try to let yourself sleep until you wake up naturally for a few days in a row – this can help you determine how much sleep you actually need.

2. Develop a Routine

We sleep better when we can keep to a schedule. It’s important to go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day. Once you have determined how much sleep you need each night, plan for it and make bedtime a priority. If you find you need more sleep, trying going to bed 15 minutes earlier. Take your time and don’t try to force dramatic changes to your schedule. After a few days, roll back another 15 minutes, and so on until you get your bedtime where it needs to be. You could even set a bedtime alarm that reminds you to put down your phone or laptop and get ready for bed. It’s a lot easier to adjust your bed time than your wake-up time – especially if you have to get up at the same time every morning for work or school.

You may love sleeping in on Saturday morning, but developing good, reliable sleep hygiene also means getting up around the same time on weekends. At the very least, try not to sleep more than an hour past your weekday alarm. Sleeping too much on weekends can actually be counterproductive, making it much harder to get in bed and fall asleep at a reasonable time on Sunday night. Hopefully, if you stick to a healthy sleep schedule during the week, you won’t even need to sleep in on weekends.

Take it slowly and be patient when it comes to setting a new sleep routine. Don’t expect to do too much, too fast – adjust your bedtime by 15-minute increments until you have it at the right time.

3. Create a Cool, Dark Sleep Space

There’s a lot to be said for using your bedroom for sleep. Your bedroom is not the place to watch TV or work on the computer. Your ideal sleep space should be cool and dark, so you get a good night’s sleep. Make your bedroom a sanctuary – no TVs, no computers, no smartphones, and no stress allowed.

You might need to invest in blackout curtains or a sleep mask to make sure you can fully block out the light. Artificial light can trick your brain into thinking it’s time to be awake. When there’s too much light, your brain slows its production of melatonin – a natural hormone that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep.

Your bedroom also needs to be the right temperature at night. Studies show that the ideal sleeping temperature is between 60-67 degrees. Your body temperature drops in order to enter the deepest stages of sleep. Sleeping in a bedroom that’s too warm essentially thwarts the process and even hampers the production of melatonin. You may need to experiment a bit with the temperature that works best for you.

4. Try Relaxation Techniques

If you find it hard to settle down and go to sleep at night, you can some techniques to help you relax. The goal is to reduce any anxiety or stress that may be making it hard to fall asleep. Take a warm bath or shower before bed, or try some relaxing stretches. Some people enjoy journaling, Yoga, or meditation to help the brain and body power down for the night. Deep breathing exercises and guided imagery also may be helpful – several mobile apps can guide you through some of these exercises and help you fall asleep.

5. Nap Smart

Sometimes a short nap during the day can help you recover from a small amount of sleep debt. But it’s important to nap smart. If you sleep too much during the day, you may stay awake at night – which creates more sleep debt. Just be careful and try to nap strategically. Resist the urge to nap in the late afternoon, and try not to nap any longer than 20-30 minutes. This will keep you from moving into the deepest sleep cycles during the day. If you can nap earlier in the day, it will be easier to fall asleep at your normal bed time.

6. Exercise

Exercise provides so many great benefits for our bodies, including helping us sleep better. Science is still working to pinpoint exactly how exercise affects our sleep. One theory involves body temperature – exercise elevates our body temperature during a workout, then drops quickly when we stop and cool down. So, if we exercise in the late afternoon or evening, this rapid body temperature drop can help us get ready for sleep. Studies also show that exercise can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression that may be causing you to lose sleep. Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise each day to help encourage a healthy sleep routine.

7. Watch What You Eat – and Drink

plate of fruits and vegetables

Try to avoid meals or snacks before bedtime. Digesting a large, heavy, or spicy meal can make it hard to fall asleep. Also, be careful with caffeine and alcohol, as both can wreak havoc on your night’s sleep. Try not to drink caffeine after noon, and avoid alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. While a nightcap can make you feel a little sleepy, alcohol makes it much harder to stay asleep during the night – you might find yourself staring at the ceiling during the wee hours of the morning.

Studies show that our sleep is greatly improved when we eat a diet that’s predominantly healthy and nutrient-rich. For those of you with a sweet tooth, beware – there’s some indication that processed sugar is related to insomnia. If you do need a snack before bed, try to reach for a carrot instead of a chocolate chip cookie.

Finally, make sure you’re staying hydrated throughout the day. You may want to avoid a big glass of water right before bed to save yourself an extra trip to the bathroom. Instead, drink water steadily throughout the day so that your body remains hydrated.

How to Recover from Sleep Debt

Sleep is essential for our physical and mental health. While we sleep, our brains are busy cataloging memories, forging new neural pathways, healing our body’s tissues and organs, and much more. Unfortunately, busy lives and personal challenges can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. But when we go without sleep for an extended period, it can lead to some pretty serious sleep disorders and other negative health effects.

The best rule of thumb is to avoid sleep debt in the first place. It’s important to keep a regular bedtime routine and strive for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. But if you do find yourself falling behind on sleep, it is possible to make up your sleep debt and return to a healthy snoozing schedule. Simple changes can lead to powerful results. Follow some of the recommendations we’ve presented here, and you may be out of sleep debt and waking up feeling refreshed before you know it.

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