Sleep debt: what it means for you?

Sleep debt: what it means for you?

Craving some much-need shut-eye? You’re not alone. Up to 45% of Aussie’s report having a poor sleep pattern which translates into excessive sleepiness, or what the experts like to call ‘sleep debt’. It’s easy to make sleep a last priority when everyday life is busy but hear us out, sleep is just as important as the tasks we do awake as it allows us to do them in the first place. You can make up for lost sleep but it can take extra time for your body to recover. Below we delve into how ‘sleep debt’ is accumulated and what you can do to bank more sleep.

What is Sleep Debt?

 Let’s think back to last week when you lost two hours of sleep each night finishing that dreaded presentation for work. On Saturday and Sunday, you decided to sleep-in which gave you an extra four hours of sleep back. Come Monday morning this week, you were feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed because you only had to have one cup of coffee as opposed to your usual two. But, don’t be deceived - you’re still carrying around excessive sleepiness, or what the experts deem ‘sleep debt’ - which in this example is something like six hours and equates to a full night’s sleep.

In order to overcome sleep debt, it’s a great idea to gain an understanding of what it means. Sleep debt refers to how much shut-eye you ‘owe’ your body if you’ve been sleeping too little. Think of it this way, the amount of time you sleep is like putting money into a bank account. Whenever you don’t get enough, it’s withdrawn and has to be repaid. When you’re stuck in chronic sleep debt, you’re never able to completely catch-up. Being stuck in this sleep deficit increases the likelihood of sleep deprivation which we know can impact our day-to-day life in more ways than one.

Are you in Sleep Debt?

 Everyday life is busy and often consists of performing a balancing act, whether that’s work or studying, juggling family commitments, exercise or social activities with friends. It’s easy to see why sleep can often become the last priority for many, but how can you tell if you are stuck in sleep debt? Some telltale signs include moodiness, fatigue, irritability and brain fogginess.

Another method of testing whether you’re experiencing sleep debt is the ‘Sleep Onset Latency Test’ developed by Dr Michael Mosley. Go to bed in the middle of the afternoon and test how quickly you fall asleep. You’ll need to hold a metal spoon in one hand and lay a tray beside your bed directly underneath. Before you begin, check the time. You should wake up as soon as the metal spoon hits the tray. If you fell asleep after 15 minutes you’re ok, anything 10 minutes or less indicates that you are sleep deprived and in sleep debt.

Making up for lost sleep

 Sleep is defined as a restorative activity - while you sleep, your brain catalogues information and heals your body. Your brain also creates new pathways that help you navigate the day ahead. The National Sleep Foundation recommends we aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night to ensure we can wake up feeling refreshed the following day. Please note, however, this can vary per person. Some of us need 9+ hours whereas others function perfectly well on 5 or less. To figure out how much sleep your body needs, we recommend keeping a diary and noting how you feel the following day after experimenting with different amounts of sleep.

Another method is to allow your body to sleep as much as it needs over the course of a few days. You’ll then naturally get into your body’s circadian rhythm, which you can continue once the experiment is over.

Tips for catching up on lost sleep

  • Try taking a power nap for 20 minutes in the early afternoon.
  • Sleep in on the weekends, but no more than two hours past the normal time you wake up.
  • Sleep more for one or two nights.
  • Go to bed a little earlier the following night.

How to get enough sleep

  • Set a sleep schedule and try and go to sleep at the same time each night.
  • Ensure your bedroom is dark.
  • Eliminate noise pollution or combat it with noise-cancelling earphones.
  • Maintain a cool temperature of around 18 degrees.
  • Try a relaxation routine like taking a warm bath.
  • Stop using electronics at least one hour beforehand.
  • Ensure you have the right support and comfort.
  • Say no to caffeine at least 3-4 hours before sleep.
  • Avoid naps outside the 20-minute power nap taken in the early afternoon.
  • Exercise no later than three hours before bed.
  • If you can, try not to sleep later than two hours past your normal waking time, even on weekends.

If these steps don’t help and/or you experience any other sleep issues, we recommend reaching out to your local doctor for further assistance.

Benefits for making up lost sleep

Getting enough sleep is often overlooked. It has been shown to improve learning and memory, with most of us doing better with mental tasks after a good night’s sleep. Additionally, making up lost sleep can help your body remain in tip-top shape. When you sleep, your body releases a hormone which helps you grow. It repairs cells and tissue and can assist with strengthening your immune system so you can ward off those pesky infections.

It’s tempting to sleep as little as possible to get through the day. In a country that places a strong emphasis on hard work and dedication, good quality sleep often takes a back seat. However, it’s not about every waking hour, it’s about every sleeping hour. Depriving yourself of enough sleep can hinder your performance and negatively impact your health. Luckily, sleep debt can be reversed. We hope that the tips we have recommended above will help you bank more sleep for a better day ahead.

Sleep well, Snoozers...


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