Sleep, it's really important. But what happens when we don't get enough of it? This is called sleep debt. It was more than 20 years ago that sleep researcher William C. Dement, PhD, MD, first coined the term sleep debt to describe what happens when sleep is sacrificed over a period of days or weeks. His work helped launch sleep medicine as a speciality and inspired further research on sleep deprivation.
But it's not just about the number of hours we get. The quality of sleep is just as important, to help your body and mind reset and recover. Sleep helps us produce hormones, which help regulate our mood during the day and even our hunger levels. That means being sleep-deprived will affect your emotional health as well as your physical health
We want to debunk the theory and let our readers know the science behind sleep debt and whether you can catch up by sleeping more.
WHAT IS SLEEP DEBT?
Sleep is a vital part of health. Not only does it boost your energy levels during the day, improve immunity and aid memory, but long term sleep debt can also lead to numerous complications that can have adverse effects on your overall well-being.
However, sometimes we don't always get our golden "8 hours" suggested. Whether it's a late night work project, the kids have you kept you up or you just couldn't get to sleep, there are many reasons why a lot of us are not getting the right amount of sleep during the week.
When the weekend hits, we usually try to catch up on these precious Zzzs. But can you catchup on lost sleep, commonly known as "sleep debt"?
Studies have proven that short-term sleep deprivation can lead to a impaired cognitive function including impaired driving, foggy brain, worsened vision and memory impairment. Long-term effects from sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, heart disease and other ailments.
HOW DOES SLEEP DEBT WORK
Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep we should be getting and the amount of sleep we actually get.
For example, if your body needs eight hours of sleep per night, but only get six- you have two hours of sleep debt.
If you find yourself awake for 30 or 60 minutes longer than usual, these can add up to hours of lost sleep quickly.
The following study by NCBI was undertaken, outlining the short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Sleep disruption is associated with increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, metabolic effects, changes in circadian rhythms, and pro inflammatory responses. In otherwise healthy adults, short-term consequences of sleep disruption include increased stress responsively, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.
HOW MUCH SLEEP IS ENOUGH?
The recommended amount of sleep for people who lead a sedentary lifestyle (e.g.: desk jobs) is between seven and nine hours per night, as per the guidelines from healthline here. This recommendation can vary from person to person, however this is a safe assumption.
Avoiding Sleep Debt
One of the easiest ways to counteract taking on too much sleep debt is to get enough rest in the first place. Learning how much sleep your body needs and prioritizing sleep as one way to care for it are some of the best strategies, though there are other tips you can use outside these tactics.
Sleep may seem unimportant when you want to get more done, but sleep improves cognitive performance and allows for enhanced focus. Paying attention to the following habits will help minimize accumulation of debt while staying productive.
- Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule.
- Avoid Caffeine After Noon.
- Avoid Alcohol After Dinner.
- Avoid Sugar Before Bedtime.
- Exercise Daily!
- Get Enough Sunlight.
- Keep your room cool.
- Keep your room dark and quiet at night!
- Get your mobile phone out of the bedroom.
- Try meditation at night to unwind.
- Keep a to-do list and get your work schedule out of your head.
You can read our article here, where we talk about 11 things you can do to improve your sleep.
CAN YOU REALLY CATCH UP ON LOST SLEEP?
The good news is that sleep debt can be repaid with effort. But don’t expect catching up on lost sleep to cure all the effects of long-term neglect. You need to be consistent with your sleep hours.
So what’s the best approach to catch-up on missed sleep? Tacking on an extra hour or two of sleep is the best way to pay back sleep debt. For the chronically sleep-deprived, it can take months to get back metabolism fully back on track and balance the sleep debt scales.
IS SLEEP ALL TREATED THE SAME?
For restorative sleep, both the hours slept and the quality of the sleep are equally important. Some of our most refreshing sleep occurs during deep sleep.
If your sleep quality is poor, you may find that you still feel tired after getting what should be considered enough. Conversely, if you’re getting good quality sleep, you may manage better with a little less.
As you erase sleep debt, your body will come to rest at a sleep pattern that is specifically right for you. Sleep researchers believe that genes—although the precise ones have yet to be discovered—determine our individual sleeping patterns. That more than likely means you can't train yourself to be a "short sleeper"—and you're fooling yourself if you think you've done it.
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