Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

How Deep is Your Sleep Debt? — Tips on Getting Your Healthy Sleeping Schedule Back On Track

Mar 23, 2016 02:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Lisa J. Gotto

The tiring truth is, most of us are wallowing in it. Hence, the relentless yawning after lunch, the 3 p.m. line at the Keurig, and the office drawer with your 5-hour energy drink stash in it. Sleep debt occurs when we consciously allow ourselves to go with less sleep than we actually need—usually several nights a week or more. It might seem innocuous at first, just cutting off an hour here and there so we can catch up on email, chores at home, or the latest streaming cable series, but before you know it, these lost hours amount to a health-taxing situation that compromises our ability to think clearly and work efficiently. Sleep debt, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also compromises our health in other ways as it can cause us to gain weight, alter our motor skills and memory, and leave us with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Paying The Debt Off

While it is easy to think that we’ll make up for lost sleep on the weekend, experts say this doesn’t really cut it. In other words, one or two solid nights of sleep won’t make up for a lifestyle of chronic sleep deprivation.

To get back on track and out of debt, the NIH recommends:

1. Make sleep a top priority

Make sleep a priority by scheduling it like a priority. Start by carving out at least 7-and-a-half hours per night. (While you may be thinking the 6 hours you’ve been squeezing in works just fine for you, research shows that adults, 18 and over, require a range of 7.5 to 9 hours per night.) So you could be accruing sleep debt without even realizing it.

2. Settle up

Settle up any short-term sleep debt as soon as possible. If you had a lousy night of sleep, schedule in an extra hour or two the next few nights to make up the difference. It’s like paying off that credit card balance every month.

3. Take notes.

Or create a sleep journal and record when you rise and retire each day. Note the quality of sleep you got and how you felt in between. Tracking your sleep provides insights into your patterns and needs.

4. Schedule a sleep “vacation.”

In cases of long-term, chronic sleep debt, this may be your best bet. Carve out a two-week period where your schedule can be more flexible. Don’t set an alarm clock. Do go to bed at the same time every night and sleep until you naturally wake up each morning. At the end of two weeks you should have your sleep debt accounted for and you’ll receive the added bonus of finding your ideal sleep schedule.