What Is Sleep Debt?

...and how do you pay it off?

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The sun is shining, the coffee is brewing, and even though you just woke up, all you want to do is go back to sleep. Your eyes are heavy and burning, you feel irritable, maybe even a little sick to your stomach. We’ve all been there, that terrible feeling of not being rested despite having just woken up. If this is consistently happening to you, you may be experiencing the effects of sleep debt.

The Center for Disease Control defines sleep debt as “not getting adequate sleep over a series of days” which causes the debt to increase. The CDC then gives a good example of a person who needs eight hours of sleep, but only gets six; this would leave this person with a two-hour sleep debt. Not too bad; maybe a long nap the following day could “pay it back,” right?

Theoretically, yes, but not many adults have time for a two-hour nap every day, and if this person continues to get six hours of sleep nightly, that sleep debt adds up. By the end of one week, this person has a sleep debt of a whopping 14 hours! Not many people have an extra 14 hours to spare throughout the week, and sleep deprivation can have long-term health effects such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. So what are some ways you can sleep off your sleep debt?

Naps and How to Catch-Up on Sleep

There is nothing like a slow weekend morning, and while you may be thinking you can “catch-up” on your sleep by sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday mornings, that may not actually be the best idea. According to Harvard, though the hours slept on the weekend may technically make up for hours lost during the week, it does not truly even out because the daily amount, quality, and regularity of sleep/wake times matter, too. By sleeping in, you run the risk of throwing off your circadian rhythms, causing you to stay up later and continue the cycle of sleep deprivation. As mentioned above, sleep deprivation can have long-term effects on your health, so anything that continues the cycle needs to be stopped. Avoid sleeping in more than an hour or two on the weekends to keep your biological sleep clock ticking correctly.

What about naps? Naps are a great way to get refreshed and cancel some sleep debt, but be careful! Similar to sleeping in, if you nap too long, your circadian rhythms can get thrown off, causing you to stay up later. Sleep.org states that the ideal amount of time for a nap is 20-90 minutes. Any longer than that and you may be up tossing and turning into the wee hours of the morning, causing you to accumulate even more sleep debt.

The same article linked above shares many helpful ideas for cancelling sleep debt; the best way seems to be moving up your bedtime just a little earlier. If you manage to get to bed fifteen minutes earlier each night, that is almost two extra hours of sleep per week! Once you’ve adjusted to the fifteen-minute time difference, see if you can bump your bedtime up by a full half-hour. This way, you will slowly chip away at your sleep debt and wake more rested.

Lifestyle Adjustments Help Sleep Debt

The CDC states that when sleep deprived, you will sleep deeper. This deep, quality sleep will cancel out your sleep debt more quickly, without you having to make it up an hour for hour. Of course, everyone wants to sleep better, so the question remains: how do I get good quality sleep?

There are several lifestyle adjustments that can affect your quality of sleep immensely. One of the first adjustments to look at is your caffeine consumption. Consuming too much caffeine or consuming it too late in the day can have a negative effect on your nighttime sleep; caffeine causes your heart to race, your brain to release dopamine, and makes you feel more awake and alert. So next time you reach for that afternoon cup of coffee, pause and ask yourself if you would rather get some quality sleep tonight. Maybe trying a few jumping jacks, taking a brisk walk, or running up and down a flight of stairs would be a better way to wake up without the pitfalls of caffeine.

Along the same lines of caffeine, you will want to watch your alcohol consumption. Even though a glass of wine or two at the end of the day may help you slip into slumber more easily, alcohol will actually disrupt your sleep cycles by shortening your REM (rapid eye movement) stage. This will cause you to feel foggy and unfocused the following day. If you need help winding down at night, instead of reaching for your wine glass, consider ditching the smartphone. The effects that screens can have on your sleep may be detrimental; the blue light coming off of the screens can lead to suppression of melatonin and shortened REM cycles, to name a few issues. So instead of preparing for sleep with a glass of wine and some social media scrolling, maybe give reading a book by dim lamplight a try. Your sleep will be better quality, and your brain and body will thank you when you wake up more rested!

While limiting caffeine, alcohol, and screen time are some quick-term solutions for better sleep, there are other lifestyle changes you can commit to that will benefit your sleep and overall health. Optimizing your diet and exercise routine can certainly have a positive impact, resulting in deeper sleep. Another adjustment you can make is to be sure you have the best mattress for you; this will mean less tossing and turning, more pain relief and support, which ultimately leads to more deep, quality sleep.

So, like all debts, sleep debt may take some time to pay off, but it is possible! A little diligence in your lifestyle to ensure better quality sleep, a good mattress, and a little discipline to get to bed earlier will go a long way in paying off that debt. Soon enough, you will be waking up a rested person ready to tackle the day!