Sleep Debt – How to Catch Up On Lost Sleep

What is Sleep Debt?

The number of hours we need to sleep has been up for debate for many of years because it varies from person to person depending on many factors.

The National Sleep Foundation recommended in 2015 that the average adult needs to sleep between seven and nine hours per night to maintain optimal health levels.

Sleep debt is the number of minutes and hours that you're in a deficit of this ideal nightly sleep level. You can calculate your sleep debt by working out the number of nightly hours sleep that you should be getting and then subtracting this from the number of hours sleep you get in reality.

You can calculate this over days, weeks or even the whole year. Sleep debt can quickly add up and losing just 15 minutes of sleep a night results in a total loss of 4 days per year.

Prolonged sleep debt is caused by a chronic lack of sleep which surprisingly is relatively common due to the fast-paced and work orientated lives that we have in modern society.

Sleep is often forgotten about and not seen as essential but it should be placed in the same health bracket as diet and exercise as one of the keys to maintaining efficient health levels.

Why is sleep debt bad?

When we have a full nights sleep, we enter what’s referred to as REM sleep which frequently occurs in the second half of the night and is a deeper sleep.

During REM sleep our body goes through repair and restoration which means that if your body is deprived of deeper sleep, you’ll feel sluggish and tired throughout the day.

Sleep is one of the most critical needs for the human body to function correctly. One night of inadequate sleep isn’t enough to affect the body, but when this consistently happens night after night, then this becomes chronic.

This can lead to behavioural issues such as weaker judgement, attention problems and drowsiness. People who suffer from sleep debt routinely perform poorly on intelligence tests.

Physical symptoms also develop such as weaker vision and reduced motor skills which is why when you’re tired you struggle to drive as effectively.

Who has Sleep debt?

Sleep debt isn’t just reserved for a single type of person, mainly because there is no test for it. Your overall lifestyle will have a significant effect on your sleep, so if you’re a parent of a newborn child or regularly work a shift pattern with a mix of day and night shifts, then you probably have sleep debt to some degree.

If you sleep in an environment that isn’t sleep-friendly, then you likely have sleep debt. An unfriendly sleeping environment includes a range of electronic devices that keep you up at night.


How to avoid & fix sleep debt?

The critical thing you need to do is to prioritise your sleep because hopefully, you’re starting to see how important it is. Each night you don’t get enough hours sleep you continue to add to your growing sleep debt.

Most people think that you can wait until the weekend and catch up on all the sleep you’ve missed out on during the week, but it isn’t as straight forward as this.

For example, if you miss out on 2 hours sleep each day between Monday and Friday, that’s a total of 10 hours sleep, but you don’t need to sleep for an extra 10 hours over the weekend to fix this.

Overcompensating and sleeping too much can affect your sleep in another way because it alters the pattern of your circadian rhythm and will also give you a feeling of drowsiness similar to being jet lagged.

To avoid sleep debt and generally have a better sleep you should follow the following steps:

1. Avoid Technology Screens Around Bed Time

Ideally, you should avoid smartphones, tablets and other devices at least an hour before you plan on going to sleep. This will ensure that your body’s production of the sleep hormone Melatonin is not disrupted allowing you to get to sleep quickly.

2. Avoid Exercise Before Bed

Exercising before bed releases hormones such as Dopamine which increases alertness which is ideal at other points of the day, but if this happens right before you go to sleep, this can make it harder to fall asleep as it’ll be harder to relax.

3. Wind Down Before Bed

Just relax before bed, and this will make it easier to fall asleep, avoid doing any tasks that require of work either physically or psychologically because then it’ll be harder to “switch off” and fall asleep.

4. Go to Bed When You Feel Tired

Sounds simple but with life’s pressures, it’s not always easy to go to bed when you’re tired. But if you’re able to, then you can get enough sleep to the point where you no longer need to use an alarm clock to wake you up. Staying up late for no reason causes you to accumulate higher levels of sleep debt.

5. Stick to a Consistent Schedule

If you decide to sleep in late, then this will make it harder to fall asleep the following night. So you should try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule of going to bed and waking up at the same time.

If you still feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to complete all your tasks, then create a log of how you spend your day, and this will uncover where there are inefficiencies. For example, you may realise that you’re going food shopping five times a week where you could save time by doing bigger shops less frequently.

Napping can be an excellent way to reclaim sleep debt but similar to sleeping in, if you nap for too long in the middle of the day then this can affect your nighttime sleep, causing you to go around in circles. For the best results, it’s recommended that you stick to 20-30 minute naps.

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