A Beginner's Guide to Sleep Debt • Earth.com

A Beginner's Guide to Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of time someone needs to sleep and the amount of time they actually sleep. For example, if you only slept five hours last night, but need eight, then you have three hours of sleep debt. Also called sleep deficit, sleep debt is cumulative, meaning that if you just get 30 minutes less sleep each night for a week, that adds up to 3.5 hours of sleep debt.

Think Your Fine With Less Sleep? Probably Not.

Don’t think going to bed 30 minutes later affects you? Unfortunately, you can accumulate sleep debt without even realizing it. Called chronic sleep restriction or chronic sleep debt, small reductions in sleep pile up, reducing cognitive function and awareness, in addition to general daytime sleepiness. The scientific journal Sleep published a study demonstrating that reducing nightly sleep over the course of two weeks had the same detrimental effects as going without any sleep for two days. All that lost sleep can really catch up to you, whether it happens all at once or overtime.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

If you’re wondering how much sleep debt you’ve accumulated, you first need to know how much sleep you should be getting. While it might be slightly different person to person, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Sleep Foundation advise that adults get between seven and nine hours each night. Kids and teens need even more. With growing and developing bodies, they often need upwards of ten hours each night! 

Sleep Debt & Health Risks

Getting enough sleep promotes good overall health. In fact, another term for sleep health is sleep hygiene. Just like dental hygiene has lifelong impacts, getting the right amount of sleep affects nearly every other aspect of your physical. The effects of sleep deprivation include an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain, high blood pressure, obesity, and stroke. Additionally, a lack of sleep can be hard on the immune system, not to mention your mental health. In general, good sleep equals better emotional regulation, a pattern amplified in teens. Wondering why your road rage has been higher and patience has been shorter? Too little sleep is probably the answer.

Recovering from Sleep Debt

Luckily, you can recover from sleep debt by catching up on lost sleep! Though this does mean you will need to make time for this extra sleep. One effective way of recovering from insufficient sleep is by napping. Taking naps of any length has been shown to restore cognitive function in sleep-deprived folks, but generally, the best practice is to catch up gradually in 20-40 minute naps.

Hitting the snooze button on the weekends is another form of recovery sleep. Sleeping in and getting a bit extra sleep can help the body catch up. However, the best practice for better sleep lies with a consistent sleep schedule. Sleeping in on the weekends can help you catch up, a better strategy is to get the same amount of sleep every night.  

Avoid Sleep Debt with Good Sleep Habits

Once you’ve recovered from your potential sleep debt, the next step is to keep a natural sleep routine. Whatever practice you choose, the combination of the right sleep time and consistent sleep patterns create a healthy model. Choose some tips from our list below to help create your dreamy sleep routine!

Set Yourself Up for Success

As you go throughout your day, develop habits that support healthy sleep. So many practices can help you catch those ZZZs. If this is all new to you, start by picking a few that fit more easily into your schedule rather than shifting everything at once.  

Reduce Caffeine Intake

Whether you’re a sucker for those lavender lattes or enjoy a cup of Earl Grey in the afternoons, caffeine in all forms can affect your sleep cycles. You don’t have to give it up altogether. Enjoy your favorite beverages while supporting sleep health by limiting how much you drink and not ingesting caffeine past the afternoon. 

Give Yourself Enough Time to Digest

Digestion slows down while you sleep. That means a heavy meal can leave you with an uncomfortable stomach as you’re trying to fall asleep. High fat and spicy foods can be especially triggering. To keep your stomach happy, give yourself more time to digest a big meal before you hit the hay. Short on time? Opt for a lighter meal and end it with a cup of chamomile tea. 

Workouts Wake You Up

Similarly to eating, working out can keep you up. The rush of endorphins from exercise tells your body it’s time to move. Even though you might feel drained after that spin class, your mind will be on fire with activity and will make it hard to go to sleep. If you’re not up for the early morning workout (I feel you there!), schedule exercise at least one hour before bedtime to give your brain and body time to settle down. But make sure you still fit in some weekly exercise! Working out increases your quality of sleep by helping you fall asleep more quickly and increasing the time spent in deep sleep. Additionally, a lack of exercise has been shown to exacerbate the health risks associated with sleep debt.

Create a Haven for Sleep

Your bed is not a hangout space. Even in a cramped apartment, try to fit in a comfy chair for reading or watching TV. Just hanging out in your bed trains your brain to associate being in bed with wakefulness. 

Stick to a Nightly Routine

While all your waking hours can prevent poor sleep, the time immediately before bed can really make it or break it in terms of a good night’s sleep.

Dim the Lights

Our bodies are trained to trust that light means daytime and dark means night. But with the advent of modern electricity, we can keep the lights on all night long. Help your body get ready for quality sleep by creating the right ambiance. Dimming the lights 30 minutes before bedtime can help signal your brain to start chilling out. You can invest in a sunset lamp that slowly dims to dark or take the proletariat strategy by turning off the overhead light and 

Limit Screen Time

The blue light from screens on phones, tablets, computers, and TVs keeps your brain buzzing. Not to mention that those pesky screens can cause a few too many late nights. A good practice to improve your sleep quality is to set a limit to screen time each day. Additionally, set a time that the screens go away as you start to wind down. That will give your brain a rest, and set you up for sleepy-time success!

Listen to Soft Music

Before bed, put on your favorite chill playlist. Studies have shown that listening to soft music with a slow tempo improves sleep quality overall. 

Start a Mindfulness Practice

Practicing mindfulness provides another way to improve your quality of sleep. Studies show that adults who train in meditation and mindfulness experience a reduction in insomnia and an improvement in sleep quality. This doesn’t mean you have to become a bonafide buddha! Even just meditating ten minutes each day can be effective.

Healthy Sleep Means a Healthy You

In a society that overvalues busyness and seems to validate stress (not to mention those with unpredictable shift work), it can feel challenging to make time for enough sleep. Sleep debt is a very real and scary phenomenon. Losing sleep means losing out on health, wellness, and happiness. Though a few more hours in every day would be pretty helpful, in the 24 we have, it’s crucial we prioritize eight of them for sleep.

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