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What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep debt, also known as sleep deficit, is the long-term impact of not getting enough sleep. You might not think missing an hour or so of good bed rest in a single night affects you much – but when it happens again the next night, and the night after that, the effects can stack up.

It’s generally recommended that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you regularly get less than this, it may start to affect your work and daily life over time.

Young woman asleep on office desk.

What are the effects of sleep debt?
Sleep debt has similar effects to a night of sleep deprivation, but because it happens over a much longer period of time, you might not notice them at first. Some of the symptoms include:

• Feeling less focused during the day, finding it harder to concentrate on work
• Irritability and emotional stress
• Greater dependence on caffeine and other stimulants
• Feeling sleepy while driving
• Gaining weight

Sleep debt can affect you cumulatively – if you’re getting an hour less sleep than usual per night, then in the course of a week you’ve missed almost an entire night’s worth of sleep. The longer your sleep debt goes on for, the worse the effects tend to become.

Over the long term, sleep debt has been linked with serious conditions including diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and obesity. It’s important to recognise when you’re not getting enough sleep, because over time your sleep debt can start to feel normal when really it’s a problem that needs to be tackled.

Chronic sleep debt is different to insomnia, where people find it difficult to fall asleep at all – you can read more about insomnia here. However, it shares many of the same effects and should be treated just as seriously.

Repaying sleep debt
So, if you need extra sleep to cancel out your sleep debt, you can just lie in longer on a weekend and catch it all up, right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite seem to work like that. While grabbing a few hours of extra sleep when you can certainly won’t hurt, and can help restore the debt of one or two nights of poor sleep, it isn’t a long-term solution.

It’s been found that resting for longer periods at a time has diminishing returns when it comes to beneficial sleep. Long-period sleepers don’t tend to get much more of the slow-wave sleep and REM sleep that we need to feel fully rested.

The best way to address a long-term sleep debt is to get into good sleeping habits and maintain them. This can be something of a shock to the system if you’re used to six-hour nights, but you can build up to it gradually.

For instance, try going to bed just 15 minutes earlier to start with. Once your body clock adjusts, add another 15 minutes, and continue like this until you’re sleeping for the recommended average of eight hours per night.

Woman sleeping at home in her bed

Need help getting to sleep?
Repaying sleep debt can be easier said than done, especially if you’ve fallen into poor sleeping habits for an extended period of time. Don’t expect instant results, but do try to stick to it – consistency is often the key when it comes to enjoying better bed rest.

You may find it helps to change the way you sleep or the environment you sleep in. See our posts on sleep hacks and creating the perfect bedtime routine to discover some great tips.

Images: ©iStock/Simon Carter Peter Crowther, ©iStock/andresr.

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