What is Sleep Debt – How Can You Recover From It

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And you thought you just had to worry about financial debt!

Sleep debt is a real thing, and it affects more than 40 million Americans. If you’re not getting enough shuteye, even for just a night or two, you may be suffering from this condition.

So, while credit card companies and collection agencies won’t be knocking on your door trying to collect, your body, however, may decide that it’s fed up with you not paying it the amount of sleep it needs each night.

In this article, we’ll answer your most commonly asked questions, starting with the answer to “what is sleep debt?” You’ll also learn both the long-term and short-term effects of a deficit, and we’ll even share a way that you can calculate whether or not you’re in a deficit.

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt is when you don’t get enough rest over the course of days, weeks or years. Not getting enough shuteye results in a deficit.

Sleeping is widely considered by experts to be an important part of a healthy lifestyle, along with diet and exercise. Therefore, if you don’t get enough rest each night, you can end up with the same types of challenges that come with not getting adequate exercise or following a healthy diet.

A helpful way to picture sleep debt is to think of the amount of energy you have like a bank. You deposit energy into your bank when you sleep, and you make withdrawals when you’re awake. If you’re spending too much time awake, and not enough time sleeping, then your energy bank balances and you end up with a deficit.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Children

Newborns need the most rest, ranging from 14 to 17 hours. As kids grow up, they need less than that, but they still need more rest than adults. Infants and toddlers need between 11 and 15 hours. The number drops to 10 to 13 hours during preschool. When they enter kindergarten, they should be getting between nine and 11 hours of shuteye each night.

Learn more: How Much Sleep Do Babies and Kids Need?

little girl is sleeping

Adolescents

Adults

Everyone is different, so instead of an absolute number, there’s a recommended range for adults to follow. The National Sleep Foundation reports that adults need about seven to nine hours of shuteye per night. If you find that you still feel tired after seven hours, you may need eight or nine.

Americans average just 6.8 hours of sleep per night, which isn’t nearly enough!

Elderly

As we get older and become senior citizens, we don’t need quite as much rest as we did during our young adult and middle-aged years. The irony is that this is the time when many people are retired and don’t have as many obligations to keep them busy and burning the candle at both ends. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.

By the time we reach about 65 years of age, the amount of rest we need each night drops to about seven to eight hours, though many elderly folk report needing only five to six hours.

Read more: Aging and Sleep Guide – Do Seniors Need Less Sleep and Other Questions

How to Calculate Your Sleep Debt

The math here is simple, and we’ll walk you through it.

To calculate your sleep debt, first, pinpoint the exact number of hours you need per night to feel rested within the seven to nine-hour range. In this example, we’ll use eight hours.

For each day of the week, document how many hours of rest you got each night from Sunday through Saturday. An example might be seven hours of sleep on Sunday night, six hours on Monday through Friday nights, and eight hours on Saturday night. The total hours of sleep needed for the week to stay on track would be 56 hours, but in this example, you only got 45. That would equate to a deficit of 11 hours.

If that weekly schedule was representative of your typical week, then multiplied by the 52 weeks of the year, the annual debt would add up to 572 hours, or more than 23 full days!

woman is looking at the computer

Effects & Dangers

Short Term

Foggy Brain

The effects of sleep debt can take effect over the course of a couple days or within a week. One of the most obvious and frustrating symptoms is a foggy brain. Not sleeping enough decreases your ability to stay alert and concentrate.

Vision Issues

Fuzzy and cloudy vision is another short-term effect. Lack of rest affects the eyes’ ability to lubricate tear ducts, which could cause eye irritation and even blurriness.

Drowsy Driving

If you’re not rested, it’s hard to resist dozing during mundane or repetitive activities like driving. If you’ve ever noticed that you feel the urge to doze while driving that’s a sure sign of a deficit.

Memory Issues

Lack of rest affects our memory in both the short and long term. Sleeping is a time where our brains consolidate what we learned during the day. If we don’t spend enough time unconscious, it affects our ability to remember things.

Emotional Stress

Even one day of sleeplessness can rewire certain parts of our brain. One of these parts is the amygdala, which is responsible for fight-or-flight. If we’re sleep-deprived, the amygdala becomes more active, which can make us feel stressed or upset more easily.

Daytime Sleepiness

Common sense tells us that if we’re not well-rested by the time we wake up in the morning, we risk feeling drowsier during the day.

Poor Risk Management

The inability to think clearly and focus combined with increased stress creates a recipe for poor judgment and risk management. You’ve heard the saying that if you have to make a tough decision, you should “sleep on it.” If you’re not well-rested, you run the risk of making extremely poor and potentially dangerous decisions.

Inflammation

The time we spend asleep is valuable in tissue repair and restorative healing. Not sleeping enough also throws our hormones off balance, which may also lead to inflammation.

Slowed Reaction Time

Not sleeping universally slows reaction times in people according to this study. Whether it’s driving, sports or answering a question, we need to be able to react quickly to achieve optimum performance.

man is driving a car

Long Term

Insulin Resistance

Just a couple of nights of not sleeping well can cause insulin resistance, which is your body’s inability to regulate the amount of sugar (glucose) in your blood. Over the long haul, chronic deprivation could result in diabetes.

Immune System Dysfunction

The immune system stops operating at peak performance in an environment of sleep deprivation. If you’re not sleeping the right amount, you’ll be more susceptible to bacteria and viruses.

Diabetes

As we mentioned above, insulin resistance leads to diabetes. One study showed that losing shuteye for just one night is the equivalent of eating an unhealthy diet for six months. Imagine what stringing several of those types of nights together would do to your health!

Stroke

The exact link between not sleeping enough and the risk of stroke is not clearly known yet, but studies have shown that they are highly correlated.

Weight Gain

Sleeping affects our metabolic processes and even hormones. By not getting enough rest, your body produces excess amounts of ghrelin, which is a hunger-inducing hormone. Want to lose weight? While we’re not suggesting skipping the gym, an early morning workout when you’ve stayed up late the night before might not be your best choice!

Advanced Aging

Sleeping helps repair and restore tissues, including skin. Therefore, depriving yourself of shuteye can lead to a loss of skin elasticity, fine lines, wrinkles, and even hair loss!

Cerebral Shrinkage

It’s not just the skin that ages when you don’t get your nightly rest. Your brain also shows advanced signs of aging. When deprivation is extended over long periods, the brain shrinks in volume and shows increased signs of aging in almost all sections.

Systemic Inflammation

Those suffering from conditions like arthritis may now be able to blame not sleeping the proper number of hours each night as a leading cause. Systemic inflammation can be caused by a variety of factors, including a suppressed immune and a hormonal imbalance. Guess what? Those are also affected by sleep deficits!

woman with arthritis pain

How to Get Rid of Sleep Deficit

Avoid Screens at Bedtime

Not only does looking at a screen keep you awake longer, the lights from screens disrupt the production of melatonin, a hormone that’s critical for falling asleep. If you must view electronic displays before bed, try wearing “blue blocking” glasses.

It’s worth noting that scrolling through social media or reading work emails right before bed is not conducive to winding down at the end of an evening. It’s likely to get you thinking about other people or drafting email rebuttals while you should be drifting off.

Don’t Exercise Before Bedtime

Endorphin levels increase right after a workout, and that’s likely to keep you awake long after you’ve hopped off the treadmill. Instead, plan your workouts for morning, afternoon or early evening.

Learn more: Sleeping (or Taking a Nap) After Working Out

Go to Bed When You are Tired

If you’re wondering how to catch up on sleep, there’s one way that’s been recommended by scientists all over the world. The best time to do this method is when you’re on vacation because it takes about ten days and requires some flexibility in your schedule.

All you have to do is go to bed when you’re tired and wake up once you feel rested. The first few nights will probably have you sleeping at least ten hours a night, which is a telltale sign of being in debt. However, after a few days, you’ll start to be on a more rhythmic cycle, and you’ll be able to fall asleep easier and get up at the right time.

Reset Your Circadian Rhythm

Our circadian rhythm is a 24-internal clock that helps our body stay healthy and regulated. By resetting this rhythm, you can put yourself on a schedule that allows you to get the right amount of rest each night.

The easiest and best thing to do is to set an alarm for the same time each day, even weekends. That way, you train your body to stay on a consistent schedule, which increases your chances of getting adequate shuteye.

Don’t Eat Large Meals Before Bedtime

If you eat a big meal, you should definitely give your body a few hours to digest before trying to go to sleep. If you fall asleep while your body is still working on processing what you ate, you will likely wake up in the middle of the night with indigestion. People often report having food-induced nightmares as well that can disturb your rest.

Learn more about eating right before going to bed here, and find out what's best for you.

red alarm clock on the table

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sleep debt real?

Yes, sleep debt is 100% real. Sadly, it only takes one night to go into debt, and it can have harmful effects if not corrected.

What are the symptoms of sleep debt?

The symptoms of this condition are easily detected. They include irritability, poor judgment, memory loss, daytime drowsiness, depression, susceptibility to illness, and even weight gain.

What is a sleep bank?

A sleep bank is like having an account that’s full of sleeping hours. When you fall asleep, you start adding time to the bank. When you wake up, you start subtracting from your balance. In this article, we’ve talked a lot about what happens when you withdraw too often and build up a deficit. The good news is that you can create a temporary surplus.

Here’s how it works: if you know you have to pull an all-nighter, sleep a few extra hours in the week preceding this planned event. That way, it’ll have less of an effect on your overall well-being.

Conclusion


It seems like there are never enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on our task list. And now, it turns out that we can really hurt ourselves by not getting enough rest. The good news is that even if we’ve gone into debt and built up a deficit over a period of years, we can climb out of debt in a matter of days by taking a vacation or making minor adjustments to our schedule.

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Author: Sleep Advisor

Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.

Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.

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The Sleep Advisor