What Is Sleep Debt and How Do You Get Rid of It?

One out of three American adults sleeps fewer than seven hours each night, which is less than the minimum recommended amount of sleep. Even if you normally get enough sleep you may have the occasional late night or early wake-up time that interferes with your regular sleep. If you miss out on sleep here or there you might feel tired for a day or two. A consistent lack of sleep has negative health consequences, however. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk for many health issues, so how do you get rid of sleep debt?

Sleep deprivation increases a person's risk for several health issues. Stick to a regular sleep schedule and focus on getting good quality sleep, and enough sleep, each night. Click To Tweet

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is an informal way of referring to sleep deprivation.

Adults typically need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for good health.

If you sleep just six hours a night for a year, you would have 365 fewer hours of sleep than someone who met the recommendation for sleep hours. Does that mean you would have to sleep eight hours a night, or more, for the next two years to break even on your sleep debt?

Fortunately, that’s not how sleep debt works; you don’t have to pay back every minute of sleep that you miss out on.

Think of sleep debt as a sleep deficit; if you have a sleep deficit, you need more sleep than you are currently getting in order to stay healthy and well.

The dangers of sleep deprivation

  • Sleep deprivation is linked with an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  • A lack of sleep can affect reaction times, focus, and cognitive function, which can lead to accidents at work, while driving, and around the home.
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to loss of productivity at school or at work.
  • Sleep debt can negatively affect your mood and increase the risk for depression.
  • Inadequate sleep weakens your body’s immune response and affects your overall level of health.

How to get rid of your sleep debt

It may seem like getting extra sleep on the weekends would be the best way to get rid of sleep debt, but this is not the case. Sleeping in for an hour or two is fine, but 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.

Get rid of sleep debt the same way that you get rid of monetary debt: little by little. Stop accumulating sleep debt and make a plan to get rid of it.

Focus on getting good quality sleep and stick to a sleep schedule that provides enough sleep each night. Start going to bed earlier rather than waking up later. Going to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier each night can make a big difference; gradually go to bed 15 minutes earlier until you are at your desired bedtime. Avoid napping during the day. The occasional nap is fine — especially if you need the sleep — but try to keep naps infrequent and brief (less than 30 minutes).

Sleep quality makes a big difference, too. Practice good sleep habits and improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Exercise every day.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent in front of screens, especially around bedtime.
  • Reduce caffeine intake, especially late in the day.
  • Avoid food and alcohol before bed.
  • Relax before bedtime.
  • Maintain a good sleep environment.

Sometimes sleep disorders can keep you from getting the sleep that you need. Talk to your primary care physician if you feel exhausted and have trouble making it through the day despite good sleep habits and ample sleep time. Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist to determine if you have a sleep disorder.

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