What is Sleep Debt?

You have probably heard of sleep deprivation, but have you ever heard of sleep debt? It can be defined as the difference between how much sleep you need versus how much sleep you get. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly one-third of Americans get less than six hours of sleep each night. This becomes concerning when this lack of sleep continues night after night. Sleep is a restorative activity – while you sleep, your brain heals and repairs your body. Consistent sleep debt can increase the risk of diabetes and hypertension, and reduce  immune function. Understanding sleep debt and the associated symptoms can help you recognize when you are not getting enough sleep. Keep reading to learn more about sleep debt and how you can minimize the amount of sleep debt you accrue in the future. 

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt, also called a sleep deficit, is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs versus the amount they actually get. For example, if you need eight hours of sleep and only get five, you have three hours of sleep debt. Sleep debt is cumulative and can add up fairly quickly. Losing 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, or even 1 full hour of sleep throughout the week, will quickly build up a noticeable sleep debt. You may begin to feel fatigued or unable to focus, and see a decline in physical, mental or cognitive performance, as a result. This deficit will only continue to affect your day if you are unable to find ways to avoid or reduce it.

Avoiding Sleep Debt

The easiest, most obvious solution to avoiding sleep debt is not allowing it to accumulate in the first place. In order to do that, you need to be aware of how much sleep your body needs and find a way make sure you get that amount of rest. While everyone’s sleep needs are different, the National Sleep Foundation does recommend adults sleep for 7 to 9 hours each night. Children and teens actually need more sleep, because sleep aids in their growth and development. Here are some things you can do to prevent significant sleep dept:

  • Maintain a sleep schedule. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule helps you prioritize your sleep to make sure you get sufficient rest.
  • Create a bedtime routine. Developing a nighttime routine is a great way to prepare for your body and mind for sleep. By completing a nightly skin routing, taking a bath, or reading a book, you can help your body to relax and signal your brain that sleep is on the horizon.
  • Enhance your sleep environment. Where you sleep has a direct impact on the quality of sleep you get. Your bedroom environment should be curated to lean in to your sleep needs. Setting your thermostat to a comfortable temperature, blocking out bothersome light or noise, and sleeping on a high quality mattress are all ways you can improve your bedroom environment.
  • Put away your electronics. Electronics, including phones, laptops, and tablets, are inhibitors to sleep. Numerous studies indicate that the blue light emitted from these electronics mimics sunlight and trigger our brains to remain awake and alert. This causes a halt in the sleep hormone

Recovering From Sleep Debt

Unfortunately, it takes more than sleeping in and an occasional nap to recover from sleep debt. Research shows that it can take up to four days to recover just one lost hour of sleep and up to nine days to completely eliminate sleep debt. Thankfully, there are a few steps you can take to help with your lack of sleep and get you back on a healthy sleep schedule:

  • Take a nap. While a nap won’t eliminate your sleep debt, it can help suppress drowsiness and increase your ability to focus, even if just for an afternoon.
  • Create a consistent sleep schedule. If you do not adhere to a sleep schedule already, it may be time to start. Set specific times for you to go to bed and wake up. This consistent schedule is important in resyncing your circadian rhythm.
  • Keep a sleep diary. Keeping a sleep diary will encourage you to log entries that describe your sleep patterns, as well as any practices that affect or disturb your sleep.
  • Improve sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene is developed by making lifestyle choices that contribute to successful sleep. Avoid caffeine and technology before bed and develop a sleep schedule. You can also adjust your sleep windows in small increments to help eliminate any sleep debt.
There are many reasons why people accumulate sleep debt, however, it is important to recognize that even if you are experiencing a sleep deficit, that keeping yourself deprived of sleep will only do more harm than good. Identify the reasons you are losing sleep, whether they be an old mattress or persistent sleep stress and find ways to improve your sleep routine and bedroom environment to better meet your sleep needs.