Sleep Debt: What Is It, Causes, and How To Avoid
Consider this: How many times in your life can you say that you’ve slept enough? Think about the moments when there’s a deadline at work or school that you’re rushing to meet. Or when times spent with loved ones are so fun that you wish the nights would never end. Or how you wish you had more than 24 hours a day, so you can get more done.
The culture of borrowing time from our sleep
In a world that celebrates busyness and productivity, we often sacrifice hours of precious sleep to make time for other priorities. Perhaps you slept two hours less on Monday from binge-watching a TV series at night. Then one hour less on Tuesday to power through a last-minute project. Then another one hour less on Wednesday when you woke up extra early for an early morning run. Then yet another hour less on Thursday for another early morning commute! The list of reasons goes on – there always seems to be something else we’d rather or need to do, than sleep.
But First, What is Sleep Debt?
Also known as ‘sleep deficit’, sleep debt is the difference between how much you’re supposed to be sleeping each night, and how much you actually sleep. A sleep debt results when you’re sleeping less than what your body needs – like sleeping later each night, and waking up earlier in the mornings!
Sleep debt is cumulative, meaning if you’re not sleeping enough on a regular basis, you’ll build up a larger sleep debt overtime, which can lead to other health consequences. It’s like borrowing sleep hours from a loan shark, and having to repay those hours at high interest!
Here’s an example. If you’re only getting three hours of shuteye at night instead of eight, you’ll have a sleep debt of five hours. If you do that for the rest of the week, that’s a whopping 35 hours in sleep debt that you’d have accumulated!
But what if you’re only sleeping just half an hour less each day? That should mean nothing, right? Well, we’d be incredibly wrong to think that! Even though it doesn’t seem like you’re losing a lot of sleep, that can still quickly add up to your sleep debt – a good three and a half hours lost in a week!
The Impact of Sleep Debt
Many of us would know that sleep is important for our health. The better and more we sleep, the healthier we will be. Ironically, sleeping well helps us become more productive too. Yet, we take time off sleep in the name of productivity, to accomplish more tasks.
If you’re not getting enough sleep regularly and build up your sleep debt, you might:
- Weaken your immune system
- Lose your ability to remain focused and efficient
- Find it hard to process and store new information in your brain
- Feel lethargic instead of alert
You’ll also be at risk of developing certain health conditions if you don’t sleep as much as you should, such as hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and even obesity!
You May Not Always Feel Sleepy with a Sleep Debt!
One thing to note is that having a sleep debt doesn’t always necessarily translate into feeling fatigue. Research has shown that our bodies, as amazing as they are, can even adapt to chronic sleep restriction! This means that even if you don’t feel tired, your body may have already undergone significant declines in mental and physical performance. Sounds like we can really cheat our minds into thinking and doing anything…… even stuff that’s bad for us!
So How Many Hours of Sleep Do You Actually Need a Night?
To avoid building up a sleep debt, we must first understand how many hours we need to have a good night’s sleep. Is what we need seven hours, eight or nine? What about the saying that ‘older people need fewer hours of sleep’? How exactly would we know how much to aim for?
Well, the thing is, this varies from person to person. The amount of sleep you need is affected by several factors, such as your age. To find out how much you need, pay attention to how you feel during the day. If you’re feeling awake and energised, without any lapses in productivity, and aren’t falling sick, you’re probably in a good space.
How to Avoid Sleep Debt
Having a good night’s sleep is key to steering clear from getting a sleep debt. Even though there are ways you can get rid of sleep debt, prevention is always better than cure!
So our advice is you should get rid of sleep debt the same way you would get rid of monetary debt: bit by bit. Stop accumulating lost sleep hours and make a solid plan to get rid of bad sleeping habits. Most importantly, you have to be determined to stick to a sleep schedule that provides you with enough sleep every night!
Focus on getting good quality sleep and practise good sleep habits as these can help you fall asleep quickly and soundly. You wouldn’t want to lose any precious time in dreamland, would you? To get the sleep you need, here are some tips you can follow!
- Exercise every day
- Reduce screen time, especially close to bedtime
- Reduce caffeine intake, especially later in the day
- Avoid food and alcohol before bed
- Take melatonin supplements 40 min before bed
- Make yourself some chamomile tea to calm your mind
- Find ways to relax before bedtime, such as through meditation or stretching exercises
- Maintain a conducive sleep environment at 18-21 degrees Celsius
- Use quality sheets, like the ones from HeavenLuxe, that are suitable for your climate
- Improve your sleep hygiene by changing your sheets regularly
Can You Pay Off Your Sleep Debt?
The good news is yes, it’s possible to reverse your sleep debt and catch up on lost sleep. You’ll need to make simple changes to your routine to help yourself become more ready for the days ahead. However, this only applies to recovery sleep, which refers to getting a proper night’s sleep after recently not getting enough. The acute physical effects of a sleep debt can be reversed very quickly with just a few nights of sufficient sleep!
However, research has shown that it can take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep, and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt completely! So while a sleep debt is reversible, it is neither productive nor effective, and can be disruptive to your daily life. You also can’t make up for lost sleep from months or years before.
Nevertheless, here are some methods to overcome the short-term effects of sleep deprivation and catch up on some sleep:
- Try to extend your sleeping duration. Start going to be slightly earlier or waking up later. Going to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier each night can make a dream of a difference, and you can gradually go to bed earlier until you are at your desired bedtime.
- Take naps. Longer naps lasting a few hours may be needed to make up for a higher sleep debt. However, always try to keep naps infrequent and brief, if possible.
- Sleep in on the weekends to pay off the sleep debt you’d accumulated on weekdays. This helps to reset the button on your debt each week! But be careful on how much extra sleep you are getting on the weekends and limit it to just a few hours of sleep-in. Even though this may seem like the best way to get rid of sleep debt, sleeping in too late can disrupt your circadian rhythm, throw off your natural sleep schedule and make it difficult to fall asleep when it’s time for bed.
You Owe It to Yourself to Get Good Sleep
If you’re considering whether or not to accumulate a sleep debt, it is worth weighing the pros and cons of doing so, while also gauging how quickly you’re able to ‘pay back’ what you owe. As you continually find yourself debating between ‘sleeping more’ and ‘doing more’, remember that adequate rest is what will truly help you achieve more goals in the long-term. Simply put: getting quality sleep is still the single most effective thing we can do to reset and boost our brain and body health every day. And we should all think twice about sacrificing it.