What Does It Take to Pay Off Sleep Debt?

Americans do not get enough sleep.

Of the doctor-recommended seven to nine hours every night, most of us are getting an average of only around 6.8 hours – about an hour and 15 minutes less sleep than the typical person needs.

The kind of chronic sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of nasty health issues, as well as a generally reduced quality of life.

But what can you do to get rid of this deficit? 

What will it take to get you back feeling as great as you could be?

Unfortunately, it may not be as easy as you think…

Burned out woman asleep at her desk, surrounded by unfinished workWhat Is Sleep Debt?

A common metaphor a lot of us like to use when talking about this accumulated sleep loss is that of debt.

 Just like you can accumulate financial debts by not taking proper care of your bank account, so too can you accumulate sleep debt by not taking proper care of your health.

And just as it’s all too easy to get yourself in a hole with bank debts that it’s difficult to climb out of, sleep debt can end up bringing about some pretty disastrous effects.

In addition to fatigue, sleep debt comes with an enormous list of health issues.

Lack of sleep impairs your attention, memory, sex drive, and judgment, while also putting you at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and stroke.

All in all, it’s one of the absolute worst things you could ever do to your body. 

Why Sleep Debt Is so Hard to Pay Off

Most of you reading this have probably accumulated a pretty substantial amount of sleep debt by this point – but the thing is, you’re probably not even aware of just how much your body is missing out on.

When you skimp on sleep for long enough, you stop feeling quite as tired as you probably did after just the first couple nights – but just because you can’t feel it doesn’t mean the sleep debt isn’t there.

Not only that, but it’s also extraordinarily difficult to pay off sleep debt once you’ve first accumulated it.

Let’s say you had a lot on your plate last week, so you only ended up getting six hours of sleep each night.

By the time the weekend rolls around, you’re completely exhausted – so Saturday and Sunday, you sleep in and get a full ten hours a night.

Sound good?

Well, the problem is, most people need about eight hours of sleep per night – and of the ten hours in sleep debt you accumulated over the previous week, you’ve only paid back four!

This means you’re still six hours behind where you’re supposed to be, which is the equivalent of getting only two hours of sleep one night.

You see the issue, here.

It’s not really possible to make up for an entire week of reduced sleep over the space of a single weekend, which means that a lot of us just keep racking up sleep debt left and right.

Image: man curled tight in bed, clearly tense and uncomfortableSleep Quality Also Matters with Sleep Debt

Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to sleep debt is that quality often matters just as much as quantity. 

Even if you can consistently manage to get yourself in bed for a solid eight hours every night, there are any number of reasons why that might not translate into feeling well-rested in the morning.

Some people, for instance, may have to deal with a lot of ambient noise throughout the night, leading to disturbed or unrestful sleep.

Low-quality mattresses are a leading for low-quality sleep, as well.

Many people keep their mattresses long after the recommended 7 to 10 years they’re engineered to last for, resulting in an uncomfortable sleep environment that can leave you tossing and turning for hours.

You may also find yourself waking up with serious back pain or a crick in your neck that leaves you sore all morning.

In any case, there are all too many reasons why a “good night’s sleep” might not leave you feeling so great after all.

How to Pay Off Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is one of the most annoying problems to deal with because it just takes so much time to sort out.

There’s no way out of it short of actually making up for all those hours of sleep you missed – and since a lot of us are dealing with incredibly busy schedules, it can feel almost impossible to find that many hours in a week.

If you’re dealing with a short-term sleep debt – maybe you had to catch a redeye flight this morning – you can probably sort out your sleep issues in the space of just a couple days.

Take some naps, get a solid ten hours of sleep, and you’ll be feeling better in no time.

When you’ve been dealing with sleep debt issues for weeks, months or even years, however, the answer isn’t quite so simple. 

Most experts recommend pushing back your bedtime, both during weeknights and on weekends.

Don’t just try to jump straight into it, though, or you’ll end up tossing and turning during the time you’re supposed to be making up for lost sleep.

Instead, try gradually moving bedtime back by 15-minute increments every night until you’re feeling well-rested every morning as you get up to face the new day.

Why Naps and Sleeping in Are Risky

You might also be tempted to just nap and sleep in whenever you get the chance during the weekend, but this can actually create more problems than it solves.

Your sleep schedule can be a finicky thing, and trying to shove too much of your sleep into a single day is a great way to confuse your poor body.

So while you might feel alright during the weekend after all that sleep, come Sunday night, you might find yourself unable to get to sleep at your regular bedtime – losing you all the credit you were supposed to build up over the past two days!

Your body thrives on regularity.

It’s much better to hold yourself to a single wake-up time, both during the week and on the weekends.

This allows your body time to settle into a rhythm it can get comfortable with.

Image: woman stretches as she wakes up, ready to take on the dayHow Long Does ItTake to Pay Off Sleep Debt?

As for exactly how long it will take you to finish paying off all your sleep debt with healthy sleep habits, experts actually disagree.

Chronic sleep deprivation is a serious issue, and some researchers say it may even take months of quality slumber before you can get to your peak performance.

In fact, even with short-term debt that you should be able to pay off in just a couple of days, problems can linger long after your deficit has numerically been paid off.

Although feelings of sleepiness and levels of certain fatigue-related chemicals in the blood return to base levels after making up for those lost hours of sleep, attention levels take longer to recover and may not return to normal for a while.

While the term “sleep debt” may be a useful metaphor much of the time, our bodies are not bank accounts.

Long-term sleeplessness can lead to problems it’s almost impossible to get rid of – just like how long-term debt can wreak havoc on your credit.

How to Enhance Your Sleep Quality

In addition to simply allotting more time to sleep each night, there are also a number of simple techniques you can use to get to sleep faster and achieve better sleep.

First of all, you need to understand just how important light is when it comes to sleepiness.

Bright lights – particularly the short-wave blue lights emitted by the LEDs in most electronics – inhibit the production of melatonin, one of the most important sleep-related hormones.

It’s a good idea to avoid exposure to bright lights as much as possible in the hours before bed, so if your lights come with any dimmer switches, this is the time to bust those out.

Keep your bedroom as dark as possible, and above all, avoid using electronics in bed!

In addition to lowering you exposure to artificial light, it’s also a good idea to work out soothing rituals around your bedtime to let your body know it’s time for sleep.

You might try reading for a little while, praying or meditating, taking a hot shower, etc.

The important thing is to be consistent.

Your body craves routine, and soothing nighttime rituals can let it know when it’s time to start powering down for sleep.

Finally, another great sleep hygiene tip is to limit your bed to the “two S’s”: sleep and sex.

You want your brain to associate your bed with sleep, and if you’re watching TV or looking at your phone in bed, you’re going to get yourself confused.

The minute your body hits the covers, you want it to be time for sleep!

Conclusion About How to Pay Off Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is a tricky creature, but with time and the right intentions, you’ll be sure to get everything under control.

Always remember that you are the one in control of your own life.

Just make the effort you know you need, and you’ll be back in tip-top shape in no time!