What is sleep debt? And can you "repay" it?

Some days (or weeks) it’s just too hard to get a full night’s sleep. Maybe you’re up early and in bed late because of a major project at work. Or you’re a new mom who gets awakened every few hours throughout the night. This loss of sleep is your sleep debt, and it builds up over time.

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Going into Sleep Debt

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep every night. This includes older adults: Elderly people may have more trouble sleeping, but they need just as much sleep as younger adults. On nights you get less than seven hours, you’re building up a sleep debt. For example, if you only get six hours of sleep every night Monday through Friday, by the weekend, you’ve built up a debt of five hours.

Consistently falling short on sleep has negative consequences for your health. With just a few days of lost sleep, you have trouble concentrating, your blood pressure increases, and your immune system starts to weaken. Continued sleeplessness contributes to major health problems down the road and loss of productivity from sick days to difficulty focusing at work. Feeling sleepy also makes traffic or work accidents more likely.

Repaying Your Sleep Debt

You may not be able to make up for all the sleep you’ve lost, but you can take steps to repay your debt. Make sleep a priority throughout the week by going to bed at the same time every night and waking at the same time every morning. Thinking you will sleep in and make it up over the weekend doesn’t always erase the harmful effects of lack of sleep.

The Harvard School of Public Health recommends that for a short-term debt, like the five hours mentioned above, you can add in a couple extra hours over the weekend and an extra hour a night during the week until you’ve repaid the five hours. For longer sleep loss, a vacation may be in order. Give yourself a chance to turn the alarm off and sleep until your body wakes naturally.

To repay your sleep debt, you need to allow your body a chance to go through its usual sleep cycle. You have five phases of sleep, from light sleep to deep sleep and REM, which is when dreaming happens. Your body usually goes through multiple REM phases every night. Help your body fall asleep by skipping coffee or alcohol before bedtime and opting for a glass of warm milk instead.

Taking a 15 to 30-minute nap daily can also help boost your concentration and your health. Most people feel drowsy during the day between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. This is a great time to take a short nap if you can sneak out of the office for a while.

It’s far too common for us to get busy and put off sleep, thinking we have too many important things to do. But sleep is essential to our overall health, and we need to make it a priority to meet all the demands on our time.

If you are struggling to sleep because of a sleep disorder, such as restless leg syndrome, insomnia, or sleep apnea, contact a Sleep Medicine Center to find out what’s happening. Experts can help uncover the problem and get you back on a regular routine.

About Sleep Medicine

Getting a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of living a healthy life. But that’s a problem for millions of Americans dealing with sleep deprivation. The UPMC Sleep Medicine Center diagnoses and treats numerous sleep conditions or disorders. We also provide help to people suffering from lack of sleep because of other health problems. We recognize a lack of sleep can cause problems during other times of the day, including alertness, memory, and health immunity. We hold sleep studies and lead clinical trials, all in the name of helping you sleep.