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Sleep Debt: Better Make This Repayment

Posted on 08 October 2015

Medical evidence suggests the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep daily, with more than 60% of women falling short of this requirement.  Hours of lost slumber during the week cumulate as ‘sleep debt’ and this is definitely the one repayment you don’t want to fall behind in.  In some cases, sleep debt is the result of insomnia or other underlying medical conditions, however in most cases it’s a consequence of the busy lives we lead - failing to get to bed on time and arising before we’re fully rested.


So what exactly is sleep debt?  The Scientific American describes it as “the difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting and the amount you actually get. It’s a deficit that grows every time we skim some extra minutes off our nightly slumber.”


A couple hours of extra sleep on the weekend should repay a small sleep debt accumulated throughout the week, however if you're chronically sleep deprived, the ramifications can be quite alarming.  Inadequate sleep for consecutive nights can degrade your memory, cause fatigue and fuzzy-headedness, negatively impact your decision-making abilities and cause irritability and major moodiness.  Severe lack of sleep can ultimately impair your immune system, with studies showing a decrease in the number of T-cells.  This could potentially lead to a greater risk of developing bacterial infections.  A landmark study at the University of Chicago showed chronic sleep debt can also raise the risk of risk of weight gain, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.



So what does one do to payoff a mounting sleep debt?  Firstly, napping won’t cut it.  Dozing off here and there throughout the day won’t allow you to gain the full benefit of sleep, as it’s unlikely you’ll enter the necessary REM and non-REM sleep cycle in the first hour.  Repaying the debt requires cycling through these stages multiple times - with a minimum ninety minutes sleep needed to activate this phase.


It may take some work, but you can repay even a chronic, longstanding sleep debt.  Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, regional medical director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers, advises us to avoid regarding sleep as an indulgence or luxury, but rather recognize adequate sleep as something just as important for health as diet and exercise are. In saying that, he offers the following advice:


Settling short-term debt: If you missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, add three to four extra sleep hours on the weekend and an extra hour or two per night the following week until you have repaid the debt fully.

Addressing long-term debt: Plan a vacation with a light schedule and few obligations. Then, turn off the alarm clock and just sleep every night until you awake naturally.


Lastly, avoid backsliding into a new debt.  Go to bed and get up at the same time every weekday and make sure you clock up at least seven hours sleep per night. If you’ve made your bed super comfortable and luxurious, then you’ve just increased your chance of blissful rest!





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