What Is Sleep Debt And How Can We Prevent It?

How much sleep do you owe your body?
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We all love getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, but it’s not that easy to achieve. Depending on when you have to wake up, this means falling asleep earlier which can be tricky to do. Or you might find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or perhaps you can only sleep for 5 to 6 hours.

And you might feel that your lack of sleep isn’t affecting you now but eventually, it will and it has a name: sleep debt.

“Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep over time,” Rex Isap, the CEO at HappyBeds explains.

Think of your sleep like a bank account, it’s the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they actually get.

“The larger the sleep debt, the more sleep they ‘owe’ their body to get back to restorative functioning,” Isap says.

Do you think your body is owed sleep? Keep reading.

What are the symptoms that come with sleep debt?

What happens when you’re in sleep debt? How does our body react to lack of sleep?

Poor health: A person who has a large sleep debt may also experience hallucinations, confusion, memory loss, and other cognitive problems. However, sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as diabetes, obesity, and depression. Poor quality sleep can also affect your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off infection.

A low mood: Being sleep deficient can also affect mood and emotions by causing irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Choosing other unhealthy habits: Many people also reach for unhealthy foods or substances when they’re tired. For example, if you’ve had a long day at work and don’t feel like cooking dinner, you may end up buying fast food. Or if you want some extra energy during the day, it might be tempting to reach for coffee or energy drinks, however, too many of these and too late in the day can worsen your sleep that night, too.

Poor decision-making or reactions: It can also lead to poor judgment and decision-making. Research has found that the brain works slower when it’s tired, which means you might not notice or take action on important information. This is especially dangerous when driving as you may not react to a hazard, and end up crashing.

Bad performance at work: Equally, not getting enough sleep can make it harder for you to concentrate on tasks or make decisions — which can affect your professional life. Research has also suggested that poor-quality sleep may be associated with an increased risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

How can you prevent getting into sleep debt?

If you’re feeling the effects of a sleep deficit you need to prioritise getting more sleep so you can improve your overall health.

You should start by having a set bedtime and sticking to it. Whilst this may feel slightly childish, this routine helps your body regulate its natural clock and create a healthy sleeping pattern.

This will likely result in you feeling tired at roughly the same time every evening and prevent periods where you crash out through exhaustion.

You should also try to add more exercise into your everyday routine, as it can reduce the symptoms of insomnia, improve sleep apnoea and even ensure you spend longer in deep stages of sleep.

So, choose the stairs, walk rather than take the tube and join your kids for a bike ride. Even better yet, exercise outside. Sunshine will regulate your internal body clock making it easier to fall asleep at night – so consider going for a walk after work. Small changes can make a big difference!

Another key thing is to avoid using electronics two hours ahead of sleeping, as the blue light emitted can also suppress melatonin levels and stimulate your brain rather than relax you. Instead, you should instead focus on relaxing your body and mind with relaxing activities that don’t require your phone – such as reading, meditating, journaling or having a hot bubble bath.

Lastly, don’t eat too close to bedtime. Try keeping at least four hours between dinnertime and bedtime, and of course, avoid caffeine at least five hours before you plan on going to sleep.

Can you actually catch up on sleep?

According to the Sleep Foundation, it can take days to recover from a sleep debt. Increase your sleep time slowly, by 15 to 30 minutes at a time, until you reach the optimal amount of sleep for your body.

As for sleeping in to catch up on sleep, the charity organisation warns that is “unclear if sleeping in actually compensates for sleep debt” or if it simply helps the body to return to its normal sleep patterns.

The best thing to do? Practice healthy sleep habits now.

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