What is Sleep Debt and How to Get Out of It

How to Get Out of Sleep Debt

It happens to the best of us. A bad night’s sleep, tossing and turning, worrying about something real or imagined. Or you get caught up streaming the latest binge-worthy show on Netflix and don’t realize how late it is until it’s too late.

It may not seem like much, but that hour (or two) that you deprived yourself of sleep can have cumulative and long-term effects on your physical and mental well being.

The average adult requires between 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night. This downtime gives your body a chance to run through all of the sleep stages, including the much-needed REM sleep stage. If you shorten your sleep schedule, you can reduce - or sometimes eliminate - the time your body spends in these critical stages.

Doing so on an ongoing basis can have a dramatic impact on your ability to focus, concentrate, and tackle the activities of the day ahead.

When we’re younger, we sometimes wear those sleepless nights as a badge of honour. Having pulled an all-nighter, whether it be for studying, working, or partying, can even warrant a congratulatory high-five from friends and colleagues.

But as we get older, these nights spent tackling other activities instead of recharging our bodies take a larger and larger toll.  

Sleep Debt is an even trickier situation, because it’s not the short-term effects of one sleepless night, but is – instead – the cumulative and growing impact of missing a little bit of sleep on many different nights.

Getting into Sleep Debt

Causes of Sleep Debt

Think of your sleep like your credit card bill.  You owe $800 (or 8 hours), but you can only afford to pay $600 (or 6 hours).  That leaves you with a balance of $200 (or 2 hours) owing on the credit card. That’s not so bad.  But follow that same pattern for an entire year, and you now owe $2,400 (or a full day!).

Sleep debt can creep up faster than you would expect, and can have a bit of a snowball effect. We often react to the effects of sleep debt by consuming caffeine and sugar, which can make it more difficult to get a proper night’s sleep the next night, and the next night, and the next night. Once you create a bad sleeping habit, it can become harder and harder to break. And the sleep debt starts building, and building, and building. 

When we first start accumulating sleep debt, we normally feel the effects right away. There is a sluggishness to the day that is hard to shake, and it’s sometimes hard to concentrate. You know you need more sleep, and - ideally - this is the time to take a corrective course of action. 

However, as that debt continues to build, we often get used to the “new normal” of how we feel during the day. It’s akin to making the minimum payments on that pesky credit card, eventually you just get used to having a high balance and try not to think about all of the interest you’re paying every single month.

Until, one day, you realize that enough is enough and it’s time to take action.

The Long-Term Effects of Sleep Debt on the Mind and the Body

Negative Effects of Sleep Debt

If we allow sleep debt to continue long term, it causes dramatic changes to our quality of life. Beyond the irritability and fatigue that early stages of sleep debt can cause, the long-term effects can include anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, a weekend immune system, and an increased risk of diabetes.

The healthcare costs associated with treating these side-effects of insufficient sleep are staggering, but the costs go beyond the hard costs of physical ailments.

Productivity is one of the areas that suffers because of sleep debt. It is estimated the Canadian economy loses approximately 80,000 full working days to sleep deprivation. And that’s only part of the economic impact. In total, the study by Rand Corporation showed that insufficient sleep costs the Canadian economy $21.4 Billion a year.

Safety is another area where sleep deprivation can take its toll.  When you are tired, your reaction time is impaired. This can lead to injuries and fatalities in your day-to-day activities, ranging from a serious workplace accident to tripping on the stairs. And, of course, there are the traffic accidents.

The CAA has likened driving while drowsy to be as dangerous as drunk driving, and has been quoted as stating that as many as 20% of Canadian traffic accidents are caused by drowsy driving. In 2018, there were over 150,000 traffic accidents that resulted in an injury or fatality. As many as 30,000 of these were likely caused by sleep deprivation.   

Getting Out of Sleep Debt

How to Get Out of Sleep Debt

Once you’re in sleep debt, the only way to get out of it is rather obvious, but not always easy. You need to pay your body the sleep it is owed.

The first step is to try to understand exactly how much is owed. Going back to the credit card example, it’s time to pull all of your statements together and lay them out on the table.

Try to keep track of your sleep schedule to understand how much sleep you are actually getting each night, versus how much you actually need. Once you’ve quantified how much sleep is owed, you can start to craft a repayment schedule.

But be careful about relying too heavily on sleep trackers. Although they can do a decent job of tracking the quantity of sleep, they are not always accurate in their understanding of the quality and variety of sleep stages. This can lead to additional and unneeded anxiety about sleep, and anxiety does not help you get a good night’s sleep!  

And don’t expect to get yourself out of sleep debt in a week or two. It took a while to get into debt, it will take a while to get out of it.

Take small steps. Even going to bed 20 minutes earlier each night will add up quickly and start to knock down that sleep debt. Creating an electronics blackout period 1 hour before bed (yes, you can live without your Instagram feed for an hour) will help you get to sleep faster and provide more sleep time for your body.

Work to stabilize your sleep hygiene. This includes waking up at a reasonable time every single day, even on the weekends. You may think that sleeping in on the weekend is a way of paying down your sleep debt, but it doesn’t count when you end up having trouble getting to sleep that night.

And just in case you were wondering, taking a sleeping pill so that you can knock yourself out for 12 hours will not help repay your sleep debt. This kind of artificially-induced sleep is like taking out a PayDay loan to make that overdue payment to your credit cards.

Staying Out of Sleep Debt

Avoiding Sleep Debt

Once you’ve managed to get that sleep balance paid down… or if you’re reading this article to make sure you never find yourself in a sleep debt situation… there are some simple tricks that can help you maintain a good sleep hygiene so that you never have to deal with the long-term effects of sleep debt again.

  • Avoid long daytime naps | Although naps are great, a nap that goes beyond 30 minutes can be determinantal to your nighttime sleep routine
  • Exercise regularly | Physical exercise during the day will help improve your sleep at night
  • Stay cool | 18 degrees is recommended as the ideal temperature for sleeping, although this is often easier to achieve in the cooler winters than it is in the peak of summer
  • Turn off your phone | Distractions during the night, even the “ping” of your phone notifications, can disturb your sleep cycle. There's a reason your phone comes with a "Do Not Disturb" function... use it!
  • Eat right | Your diet, including those late-night snacks, can have a significant impact on your sleep hygiene
  • Improve your mattress | If your lumpy mattress is making it hard to sleep, invest in a new one

Need more sleep tips? Read 22 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep.

No amount of excess debt is good for your body or your mind, including sleep debt. By creating the right kind of sleep budget, you can put yourself back on track for a healthier sleep routine and establish ways to get the right amount of sleep to make sure that you remain healthy, happy, and productive.

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