Sleep Debt and How to Avoid It

Can you remember being in debt and ever enjoying it? Of course not because debt is stressful and unpleasant. Sleep debt is no different. You might also know it as ‘sleep deficit’, but to have sleep debt means you’re not getting as much sleep as you need and it’s the cumulative effect of this on your mental and physical health. 

There’s no real official period that marks the start of a sleep debt. In fact, the greater the debt, the harder it is for us to even recognise we have one. We become so fuzzy-headed and fatigued we find it hard to remember what a good night’s rest is anymore.

What you may not realise is that it takes more than a good early night to repay the debt successfully. It will work for the first few hours you’re awake, but then the sleep debt kicks in and starts to hinder performance. 

This article looks at the devastating consequences of a sleep debt and how you can avoid it

Sleep deprivation

Everyone has different requirements when it comes to necessary amounts of sleep, but the general recommendation for adults is between 7 and 9 hours of sleep daily. According to Dr Pradeep Bollu, who is a sleep specialist and neurologist with MI Health Care (of the University of Minnesota), there are two different types of sleep deprivation: acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep deprivation. Neither of them are pleasant.

Acute sleep deprivation

The acute type is when you go without a night’s sleep ― or without a few night’s sleep ― and is the kind you might experience if you go on a big night out or stay up all night (and into the small hours) cramming for the next day’s exam. It comes from a lack of deep sleep, the type that makes you feel more alert and able to focus when you wake up. Deep sleep also assists memory by helping us to solidify the things we’ve picked up during the day and store them. The lack of deep sleep renders the all-night study sessions somewhat pointless.

When you suffer from an acute sleep deprivation, you may experience some of the following effects:

  • Higher levels of sleepiness.
  • Higher levels of fatigue.
  • Problems keeping awake or focused.
  • Lack of alertness.

Chronic sleep deprivation

Acute sleep deprivation is bad enough, but chronic sleep deprivation is even more serious. This is sleep debt you accumulate over weeks, months or even years by regularly not getting enough sleep. The lack of sleep can cause a change in body functions such as temperature regulation and immune function, as well as to hormones, and can cause a host of nasty health problems. 

Struggles with chronic sleep deprivation can trigger:

  • Cardiovascular disease (which can lead to heart attacks or strokes).
  • Weight gain or obesity.
  • Diabetes.
  • Weaker immune function.
  • Higher blood pressure.
  • Dementia, seizures and other neurological diseases.
  • Psychiatric problems.
  • Increased pain.

It’s even possible that chronic sleep deprivation could damage the brain.

How to prevent sleep deprivation

Of course, just like steering clear of financial debt if you can, you should avoid sleep deprivation, rather than play catch-up and try to put things right once it strikes. A good night’s sleep could remedy the short-term effects, but the long-term ones can persist, so how can you pre-empt sleep deprivation?

Get comfortable

Nothing will deprive you of sleep quite like a bad mattress. A mattress that bows or sags in the middle or you can feel the springs digging into your back is a mattress you need to change. Don’t let it inflict all those aches and pains any longer. Visiting Bedstar online or another good bed and bedding provider can help you find a decent mattress when you’re current one has seen much better days.

Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary

A bedroom is a place for resting, so take care to respect this. No TVs, no computers and no devices ― it’s all about getting some rest. Peaceful activities, such as leisure reading and meditation, are fine. The room should be cool and dark. If not your bedroom, then you should have another room in the home that acts as a sanctuary and allows you to get some sleep.

Only nap if necessary

If you don’t sleep well at night, a quick nap in the daytime will help you claim back some of those hours. The problem is, you’ll have trouble getting to sleep when night-time arrives and it can really disrupt your sleeping schedule. Only take a daytime nap if you truly need it, which may be the case if you work at night-time.

Keep caffeine consumption to mornings (or early afternoon)

Caffeine has a half-life of three to five hours, which means it will take your body that time to clear itself of half of the drug. The rest will stay in your system a while longer. According to scientists, we should stop consuming caffeine after 2:00 pm. They also believe that even if the effects wear off, the caffeine will still disturb sleep. Despite having no initial problems falling asleep, participants in the scientists’ research experienced disruptions in their sleep when they consumed caffeine right before bed or three hours or six hours before bed.

Take regular exercise

Exercise can improve sleep, although if done so close to bedtime then it may keep you awake, so it’s best to exercise during the daytime if possible. Research has shown that exercise during the day improves the quality of sleep, not just the quantity, by stimulating longer periods of slow-wave sleep, which is the deeper, restorative kind of sleep. Be aware that exercising to sleep better is something of a long game: it can take weeks or months before it has a real influence.

What if it’s too late?

If you’re already behind on your sleep debt, you need to address it. The sooner you do so, the better. You can do this in the following ways:

Extra sleep at weekends and in the evenings

Don’t just wait until the weekend to catch up on your sleep. Nor should you just put in one solid evening of sleeping and think you’ve sorted the problem. No. Instead, you should combine the two approaches and get an extra hour or two of sleep each evening and some extra on the weekend. If you’ve missed 10 hours of sleep, for instance, you can spread this across the week until you’ve repaid the debt.

Take a holiday

It’d be good to take a holiday if you’ve accumulated a longer term sleep debt. Your holiday shouldn’t be an active one, of course. The idea is to rest, so don’t spend all day, every day, walking around and cramming in as many sights as you can. You should have a light schedule and the fewest obligations possible, giving you plenty of time to catch up. Take early nights and don’t set your alarm clock. Wake up naturally. Gradually, you’ll return to a normal sleeping schedule as you start to catch up.

Get into a routine

Work out how much sleep you need per day. You don’t want to slip into bad old habits when you’re back on track, so factor sleeping time into your schedule and keep to it. Get up and go to bed at the same time each day. Consider any practices that might be stopping you from sleeping, such as drinking caffeine late in the day or not getting any exercise, and make positive changes.

It’s important to get all the sleep you need. Although you may be able to play catch-up in some cases, ideally, you should avoid situations or habits that put you at risk of sleep deprivation if possible. Your health and general wellbeing will thank you for it.