What is Sleep Debt and Can You Ever Repay It?

You don’t think about it too much… wake up an hour early here, miss bedtime by thirty minutes there, who actually gets 8 hours of sleep anyway?

According to a National Sleep Foundation survey, not many of us. The average American gets less than 7 hours of sleep a night, which adds up over the week. Everyone’s needs are different, but generally it’s recommended to get 8 hours a night for the average adult so, in general, we’re missing out on 7 hours of sleep a week at best.

We’ll rip the bandaid off quickly: sleep debt is a thing and you’re probably carrying more around than you realize. Sleep debt adds up

It begs the question—can you ever catch up on lost sleep?

What exactly is sleep debt? When you’re missing out on sleep, it eventually catches up to you and just like financial debt, it demands to be repaid. If you’re under-sleeping, you’re racking up sleep debt little by little. The deficit between the recommended 8 hours a night and the amount of sleep you’re not getting starts to add to a balance that can have a pretty severe impact on your health. Like any debt, chipping away at it slow and steady is probably the best way to regain control on your sleep. It takes time and dedication, but with a few simple adjustments you can be sleep debt-free in just a few weeks!

What does lost sleep do to your body? Sleep is one of the most important things we do to maintain a healthy lifestyle, there’s a reason it’s so vital. When you start to lose sleep, no matter the cause, your body can undergo a few changes.

  • Your immune system weakens Losing sleep prevents your body from recovering as quickly, which can lead to your immune system struggling to fight off infections.
  • “You look tired.” It becomes your new anthem. No one likes hearing they don’t look great, but losing out on sleep can cause stress in other areas of your life, which reveals itself in the form of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark under eye circles.
  • You lose your groove One study in young, otherwise healthy men shows lower testosterone levels in those who had their sleep decreased by a few hours—lowering their sex drive as well. Ladies are just as likely to lose their sex drives, too, according to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
  • You forget everything Sleep loss plays a huge role in your memory formation. Sleep loss lowers the function of your brain at the cellular level, reducing your ability to recall old information and concentrate on new information. Maybe you’re missing important appointments or forgetting presentations at work, or simply unable to focus on the task at hand—either way, sleep loss will make itself plenty present in your day-to-day functions.

Sleep loss can also lead to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

3 steps to catch up on lost sleep Recovery from sleep debt is totally possible, but it does require intentional effort on your part. You not only have to catch up on sleep lost, but maintain healthy amounts of sleep for your current needs, which can mean sacrificing some time in your schedule for a period of time.

  1. Remove sleep preventatives Sleep preventatives can come in all shapes and sizes and the impact they have can vary. For example, sleeping with too much ambient noise and light can confuse your body and have you waking up earlier than you’d like. Medications, too much caffeine, uncomfortable bedding, stressful life circumstances, or a too-hot room can all rob you of your sleep, so you may need to experiment with what in your life is keeping you up. Once you’ve sourced out the issue, you should be able to get better sleep for longer periods of time.
  2. Let your body tell you what it needs For your first few nights catching up on sleep, don’t set an alarm. This is probably best saved for a day off, but limiting interruptions can help you slowly start to regain sleep hour by hour. If endless slumbering isn’t an option (Let’s face it, if it was, you wouldn’t need this guide!) grabbing an extra hour each morning until you’re feeling better can still work wonders.
  3. Quality and quantity The quality of the sleep you’re getting matters just as much as the amount. Deep, restful REM sleep is the only thing that can really make up for lost time. When you first start the recovery period, you might find that you feel pretty groggy when you wake up—this is exactly what you want. You’re getting the good stuff, the stuff that ensures you’re paying off that sleep debt.

Of course, everyone's needs are unique to them, and if you feel amazing and refreshed after 6 hours of sleep each night, you may not be digging yourself into sleep debt–pay attention to what your body is telling you, and always speak with your doctor if you aren't sure you're getting enough sleep.

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Shelly Weaver-Cather
Shelly Weaver-Cather

Shelly Weaver is part of the Content Team at Tuft & Needle, leading the writing and editing of our blog. Not quite a Phoenix native, (They take that sort of thing super seriously.) Shelly has spent most of her life in the Phoenix Metro area and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. She made the unexpected jump out of wedding photography and onto T&N’s team in 2016, and found a passion for the people that keep the lights on. She still finds herself shooting in her free time, though these days there are less bridal portraits and more masterpieces of her first child, Duke, a lab-pit mix with an unparalleled love for both T&N mattress hogging and couch destroying.

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