According to psychiatrist William C Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Clinic, “When you put away sleep debt, you become superhuman.” That almost unimaginable thought is, for many of us, probably all we need to take this issue seriously! And seriously we should - with adequate sleep drastically improving our health, well-being and mental clarity.
Sleep debt is, you could say, much like it sounds. It’s the difference between the amount of sleep you should get – and the amount you actually get. And this ‘debt’ of lost sleep often accumulates over time. Think of it as a credit card debt, but without the monthly statements that jolt us into action. And here lies the Catch-22: the more our sleep debt builds, the more we suffer from fuzzy headedness, fatigue, irritability and amnesia, making it harder for us to acknowledge our decline.
The current medical consensus is that the average adult should get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day for optimum function and health. But many of us (over 60% of women, according to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, and ‘most Americans’ according to a 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation), fall short of this amount. And when this lack of sleep becomes a chronic problem, we make ourselves increasingly susceptible to more serious health issues such as diabetes, weight gain, stroke, heart disease and memory loss. Lifestyle issues also become a problem, such as driver fatigue and impeded work performance.
People can run into a sleep debt for many reasons such as sleep deprivation after childbirth, sleep disorders or chronic insomnia, but many of us build up a sleep debt purely through burning the candle at both ends and not allowing enough time each day for valuable sleep.
Perhaps one of the reasons sleep debt is so common is that many of us don’t realise how incredibly necessary sleep is for us to function well.
What happens when we sleep
When we sleep, the vital stuff happens that keeps us functioning well. In particular, REM sleep allows our brains to process information, memory and learning, and repair and restore neurological processes.
Our bodies are programmed to make sure we get sleep, which happens in two ways. Firstly, our body increasingly releases more of the neurotransmitter adenosine throughout the day, which makes us feel drowsy. Adenosine is partly a by-product of our cells’ energy expenditure. After performing certain activities, adenosine is released into the bloodstream and taken up by receptors in the brain responsible for wakefulness. Throughout the day, more of this chemical is present, making us feel increasingly tired. Secondly, we receive messages from our circadian clock (aka sleep/wake cycle) which controls our body’s daily rhythms. Both these occurrences work to tell us when it’s time to sleep each night.
How to pay back your sleep debt
The good news is that you can pay back your sleep debt. It may take some time, depending on the size of your debt, but it’s well worth the effort. And, once recovered, you can look forward to a clearer, more alert mind, an improved immune system, better energy, lower insulin levels and a lower risk of heart disease.
Although the credit card analogy is valid, the idea of stocking up on sleep is a fallacy. You can’t stash away hours of extra sleep in an imaginary sleep bank, and then draw down on it at party time and expect all to be well.
To pay back your sleep debt, try the following:
- Prioritise sleep and value it’s important. This is a great starting point.
- Catch up on sleep on weekends. This is a good solution and fortunately you needn’t think of it as a one-to-one trade-off. For example, if you’ve lost five hours of sleep through the week, you don’t have to sleep for five hours on a Saturday to catch up. Sleeping an extra hour at the weekend can help catch up on the beneficial REM cycle, for example.
- Take naps – this can help. However, avoid long daytime sleep as this can hamper your circadian rhythm and disrupt your night time sleep.
- Try to get to bed an hour earlier to help ensure a good night’s sleep
- Don’t use and allow alarm clock, and let your body sleep in for as long as it wants to the morning.
Practice good sleep hygiene:
- avoid reading electronic devices in bed
- avoid eating large meals three hours before bedtime
- avoid strenuous exercise right before sleep time
- go to bed when you’re tired
- block out light or noise from your bedroom to avoid broken sleep
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress with the appropriate pillow for your body shape and sleep position
Mattress & Pillow Science - the healthy sleep specialists.