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Last Updated on June 2, 2022 by Peter

Sleep Debt - What Is It & Why Is It Important?

A night’s sleep is of utmost importance and one of our priorities should be to sleep regularly for at least 6 hours, and if possible, even longer than that, around 7 to 8 hours. However, it happens to everyone to sleep shorter or does not sleep at all some nights.

There are many reasons why you slept short or did not sleep at all last night. Maybe you had to finish some task before the deadline, the child woke you up or you were in the club all night long. 

These are all normal situations in a person’s life and are not something that can have any long-term consequences. The only consequence of lost sleep will be drowsiness and lack of energy the next day.

But if you are losing sleep frequently, it will almost certainly cause problems. And since deep sleep is essential for overall health, then these problems can be very serious. Lack of sleep even led to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. 

If you’ve watched the TV show of the same name, you remember the quote “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” To avoid creating a debt to your body, find out what sleep debt is and how to recover from it.

Table of Contents
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    What is a sleep debt?

    Sleep research showed that 6 to 8 hours of night sleep is ideal sleep duration for adults. But since there are over 7 billion people, we cannot claim that the same rule applies to every person. So 5 hours is enough for someone, and someone does not feel rested until he or she sleeps for 10 hours.

    An image of a woman being tired due to sleep debt.

    That is why sleep debt is different for each person. Sleep debt occurs when you do not get enough sleep and you repeat insufficient sleep for several days or weeks. Then every hour that you sleep less is added to your sleep debt. For example, if you sleep 5 hours instead of 7 hours and so on all week, your sleep debt is 14 hours As sleep debt grows, then you will feel more and more every increase in sleep debt, even if it is small, for example half an hour. To properly calculate sleep debt, it’s important to count only the time you actually slept, not when you went to bed, because you may have been lying awake in bed for another 2 hours.

    What are the consequences of sleep debt?

    Consequences of sleep debt are long-term and serious, probably much more than one might think. Of course, we are talking about a sleep deficit that lasts for weeks and months, with only minor periods when a person sleeps long enough.

    Some of the first consequences you will experience are fatigue during the day, decreased focus, inability to remember new information and frequent colds. Such consequences can occur after a few days when 5 to 10 hours of sleep debt accumulate. Generally speaking, it is good when these less serious consequences appear after a few days. This will remind you that you need to sleep more.

    An image of a sleepy woman holding a pillow.

    But there are often cases when people do not notice that they do not get enough sleep, and even though they do not notice it, the body suffers. After total sleep deprivation, you begin to have much more serious consequences. Some of these can be high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, a very weakened immune system and a constant brain fog, which is not a medically recognized term, but we all know how it feels.

    Is there any way to avoid sleep debt?

    Unlike insomnia or some other sleep disorders that sometimes occur unrelated to what we do, sleep debt is very easy to avoid. You are solely responsible for how much you sleep and whether it will be enough or not. We know that many life circumstances can affect this and that once a sleep-wake cycle is disrupted, it is not easy to reset it, but there are ways. Sleep debt is much easier to “cure” than insomnia, but it also takes time, especially if it has lasted a long time and then the body no longer has a clear sleep routine and schedule.

    An image of a happy young man due to healthy sleep hygiene.

    Know your optimal amount of sleep

    Your body will tell you what is optimal amount of sleep. When you wake up in the morning, you should feel rested. You need to know approximately how much sleep you need for something like this. When you conclude that it is for example 7 hours, then adjust the schedule so that you have the opportunity to sleep approximately as much.

    An image of a young lady stretching and staying awake .

    Have a routine

    There is no one-size-fits-all bedtime routine. You need to decide for yourself whether your bedtime routine will be a glass of hot milk, a no-sweat workout or reading a book. Also, a bedtime routine can consist of several things. It is important that you repeat it every night so that your mind creates a clear association between those things you do and sleep.

    a woman reading a book before bed time

    Organize your day schedule

    Have you ever heard of the term sleep hygiene? To have good sleep hygiene, a day schedule is just as important as a sleep schedule. Everything you do during the day should be geared towards having a great night’s sleep. The food you eat, the workout, the caffeine intake, as well as the timing of all this and much more will ultimately determine whether you will sleep perfectly or have a restless night.

    Optimize your bedroom

    Optimize your bedroom and make it your perfect oasis without any things that can keep you awake or wake you up in the middle of the night. Temperature plays a very important role. Sleeping in a cold room is much healthier and can help you sleep better. Then it is important to be completely dark. To make the room completely dark, it is best to buy blackout curtains.

    an image of an optimal lighting in a bedroom

    When traveling, you may want to consider using an eye mask, and many use an eye mask even at home. Lastly, don’t forget to adjust the lighting as well, as you will sometimes read a book or watch TV in the bedroom, although watching TV is not recommended right before sleep. Night light for kids can be helpful for adults sometimes too.

    Sleep debt recovery - how to recover after the sleep debt?

    Don’t expect one or two nights to be enough for you to fully recover after the chronic sleep debt. Just as sleep debt didn’t happen after one sleepless night, so you can’t rest completely quickly. Use every moment you have to rest, and when you feel that your energy is back at 100% then be careful not to repeat the same mistakes that led to sleep debt.

    insomnia produced by stress and lack of sleep

    Have naps

    Naps are so beneficial when trying to recover from sleep debt. Avoid coffee naps in that case and go with real, power naps. However, naps can be a double-edged sword, because if they last too long then you will not be able to fall asleep at night, and a night’s sleep is certainly more important. So let the naps last 20 to 45 minutes, a maximum of one hour if you sleep before 3 PM.

    An image of a man napping on a sofa.

    Use weekends to sleep more

    You probably want to use the weekends to hang out with friends and for other similar activities that you usually don’t have time for during the work week. But it will be detrimental if you get more tired during the weekend and then start the new week with even less energy and increased potential sleep debt. Use the weekend to sleep more than usual. Try to go to bed earlier and sleep at least an hour longer in the morning, and also include one nap, after lunch for example.

    An image of a happy woman in bed due to enough sleep.

    Consult with your doctor

    You can also consult your doctor to find out if he or she may have some additional tips on how you can improve sleep. Doctor will probably recommend melatonin supplementation, which is the most effective way to notice improvement quickly. In addition to melatonin, doctor will recommend other useful things, all in accordance with your health condition. Doctor will know everything National Sleep Foundation recommends and may suggest you to go to sleep clinic.

    an image of a doctor giving her patient a referral letter
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