Paying Off That Sleep Debt

There is a lot of misconception about the notion of sleep debt, and whether or not you can effectively “pay it off” by catching up on your sleep.  So let’s take a look at sleep debt, some steps to address it, and why you should avoid it because of what really happens when you pile up a deficit in your sleep.

canvas bag with the words sleep debt printed on itSleep debt, or sleep deficit, is commonly understood as the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep.  It is not a precise term, but clinically means or is viewed as the accumulated nightly shortfall below the seven to nine hours of sleep needed by the average adult.

Sometimes sleep debt results from occasional insomnia, or an underlying medical issue—something as simple as toothache—that interferes with sleep.  But for many people, sleep debt comes from not respecting the need and importance for sleep and “cashing in” regular sleep to take care of overtime at work, to address a family obligation or even to burn the candle at both ends in social situations.  For others there are varied reasons for lost sleep, but regardless of the “why,” sleep debt will always accumulate and always have impacts.

So what to do about recapturing that lost sleep?  The news is decent for short-term sleep debt.  If you’ve missed several hours over the course of a week you can regain your focus and attention span and lose the irritability and “spacey-ness” if you add three to four hours of extra sleep over the weekend or several days.  For really long-term sleep debt from weeks, months or years of chronic inadequate sleep, a suggested solution is to go to bed at your regular time and sleep until you wake up—no alarm clock.  Then stay on your normal schedule of bedtime with an additional hour or so before you rise, until you are back to your regular, healthy pattern of sleep.

This is a program you can introduce over a vacation or when you have the most control over your schedule.  Once you have achieved a regular, healthy pattern of sleep, the important thing is not to regress into a new round of sleep debt!

So, have you paid off that sleep debt?  In a word—NO!

The hard truth is that you can never actually recapture that lost sleep!  New research shows that six nights of sleep deprivation resulted in negative impacts on attention, daytime sleepiness and inflammation, as expected, but attention levels did not recover after a catch-up period of sleep.  In addition, the baseline level of cortisol, a prime marker for inflammation, did not decrease with the catch-up sleep.  In addition the study done by Penn Medicine shows that chronic sleep loss results in a loss of neurons that are essential for alertness and cognition.  That is a permanent loss of neurons in the locus ceruleus in your brain, a center involved with regulating sleep and waking as well as the physiological responses to stress and panic.

Here’s a brief discussion with a KTVI news anchor on this topic.

More importantly, it is time to recognize the priority of adequate, healthy sleep.  When we are teaching our kids, and reminding ourselves, about the critical necessity of “food, clothing and shelter” to sustain life, we need to add sleep to that list.