What Is Sleep Debt and Why Should I Avoid It?

You've probably heard the term "sleep debt" and wondered what it means.

Are hours of sleep something you can set aside in your own personal circadian bank to spend later?

Can you really pay back lost sleep? If so, how?


What is sleep debt?

According to current recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs anywhere from 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night to maintain good health. Anything less than 7 hours amounts to what is called "sleep deprivation."

You know the feeling: the baby keeps you up at night, you have to wake up early for a meeting, traveling disrupts your sleeping patterns. It's not a problem of losing a little sleep as a part of normal daily living. Most people will find a way to make up for lost sleep by sleeping in, going to bed early, or taking a nap. 

But if you routinely get less than 7 hours of sleep every night, for many nights, weeks, even months in a row, this chronic pattern of sleep deprivation means you are essentially racking up deficits in sleep, or "sleep debt." 

Sleep debt is the difference between that desired minimum of 7 hours of nightly sleep and the actual amount of sleep you get. Maybe it's a difference of only one hour. But one hour quickly blossoms into many if your nightly one-hour loss becomes a regular feature of your sleeping pattern.

Let's say you sleep only 6 hours every night. Over the course of one week, you will have accrued a debt of 7 hours (one hour lost per night); this would be your sleep debt. Considering that 7 hours constitutes an entire night's sleep, that's a significant number. A sleep debt of 7 hours over one week's time suggests you have only received the equivalent of 6 full nights of sleep! That equals 52 nights of sleep missed over an entire year.

Sleep debt can truly sneak up on you. "People accumulate sleep debt surreptitiously," says Dr. William Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Clinic. In addition, it's been shown that people who are sleep deprived—like people who have had too much alcohol to drink—lose their ability to judge just how impaired they actually are.

And it can be difficult to know just how much—or how little—sleep you actually get, night after night. Some people swear they hardly ever sleep while taking part in an overnight sleep study, while the data shows they slept most of the night. Others think they sleep great, but their tests show broken sleep across the entire test. This is called "sleep state misperception," and it complicates discussions about sleep deprivation because, without an objective overnight sleep test, it's impossible to know if you've actually slept—or not slept—all night long.

Finally, when someone has a sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs, or insomnia, you can bet that they will be sleep deprived unless they are treated. With so many people suffering silently from undiagnosed sleep disorders, this means many, many people have sleep debt.


The science behind sleep debt

In 2015, researchers announced at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that blood panels can measure fat and acid levels in the bloodstream to reveal the presence of chronic sleep debt. These fats and acids tend to drop and have a significant impact on metabolism, an early marker of sleep debt.

Fortunately, it only took one full night's rest to rebound these levels back to normal. But without that opportunity to reclaim sleep, the metabolism issues continue down an unhealthy path, leading to many problems, including diabetes, weight gain, and obesity. 


What are the risks of sleep debt?

While the human body is known for its resilience, it's not so resilient against the impacts of sleep debt. Unchecked sleep deprivation will eventually leverage a negative toll on the human body.

This is disconcerting when you realize that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that one out of three Americans suffers from chronic sleep deprivation, which strongly supports sleep industry claims that sleep deprivation is not just a nuisance, but a public health crisis.

What's the price of a little sleep loss? Sleep debt, it turns out, can be very costly to human health.

Given these outcomes, it makes sense to "bank" your sleep nightly to avoid the health consequences of sleep debt.

Can you pay back sleep debt?

If you have a random night, here or there, when you do not get adequate sleep, you should be able to "catch up" by taking a nap, sleeping a little later, or going to bed a little earlier in the days that follow. This is also true for the jet lag you may experience while traveling.

The payoff is not necessarily going to require one hour's sleep to make up for one hour's loss, by the way. Quality is as important as quantity. Sometimes, quality naps of 20 minutes can provide the recharge of one hour's worth of lost sleep.

However, a large accumulation of sleep debt (20 hours or more, by some standards) is going to be very hard to pay back quickly. You can't just sleep one long stretch to make up for many hours of sleep debt; your body's circadian rhythms won't permit it. For the chronically sleep deprived, it may take months to restore your natural sleep pattern, says Lawrence J. Epstein, medical director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep HealthCenters. 


Who is at highest risk for sleep debt?

What you can do about sleep debt

Adding naps, going to bed earlier than usual, and allowing for some time to sleep in usually help restore most lost sleep.

Some people also take what are known as "sleep vacations," in which they force a reset of their circadian rhythms over a couple weeks to reclaim a healthy sleep pattern. Others use light therapy (either natural or artificial) in specific applications to achieve this reset.

Not sure if you are reducing your sleep debt? Rather than count extra hours of sleep, check in with yourself to see how you are feeling. Do you wake up feeling refreshed after sleeping? Are you alert during the day? Do you have energy to make it through projects at work or for school without having to nap? Then you might be caught up, or close to it. 

It's important, once you feel well rested and back on track again, to be disciplined about going to bed and rising at the same time, day after day. This way you can prevent any backsliding into poor habits that could lead to the accumulation of new sleep debt. 

If you feel that, regardless of following a good sleep schedule and getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night, you are still feeling tired during the day, you may wish to consult a sleep physician to rule out other reasons, besides sleep deprivation, which could be at the root of your sleep problems.  


 

Please reach out to us at Sound Sleep Health. We have 3 locations in the greater Seattle/Kirkland areas. Call us and Improve Your Sleep Today!

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