Say Goodbye to Sleep Debt

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

Getting enough sleep is central to living your best life—from staying safe on the road to being productive on the job. Adults typically need seven to nine hours a night, but for about 40 percent of Americans, that much shuteye is an elusive goal. The average is more like 6.8 hours—12 minutes shy of the minimum recommendation. A difference of just 12 minutes a night may not seem like a lot, but over time those minutes can add up to a huge sleep debt (especially if you really need eight or nine hours).

Over time those deficits can take a toll on your health, too, raising your risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and memory loss. And when you're in the grips of sleep debt, you often don’t even remember what it's like to feel well rested, so you may not realize just how tired you are.

So what do you do if you've spent weeks or even years of your life logging fewer hours of sleep than you need? You might think that closing the blinds and turning off your alarm on Saturday morning would do the trick, but sleeping in too much on weekends can actually do more harm than good, throwing off your circadian rhythm and making it harder to fall asleep on Sunday night. And that could mean starting your Monday with an even bigger sleep deficit than before.

Luckily, with some persistence, you can chip away at your sleep debt. These are some simple ways to do it.

Start with bedtime.

Rather than sleeping in later, which can make it harder to fall asleep the next night, go to bed earlier and wake up at your normal time. If it feels like there isn't enough time in the day to get everything done, tracking exactly how you spend your time each day for a week may help you uncover extra minutes—or even hours.

Go slow and steady.

To avoid tossing and turning, try backing up your bedtime by 15 minutes per night to gradually shift your body's clock. On the weekends and vacations, avoid sleeping in more than a couple of extra hours or it could interfere with nighttime sleep.

Be careful with naps.

Like sleeping in on the weekends, napping can be a quick way to lop a few hours off your sleep debt. But also like sleeping in, if you nap too long in the afternoon, you might have trouble falling asleep at night. And that can mean two steps forward, three steps back. For the best rejuvenation, go for either a 20-minute power nap or a longer 60- to 90-minute snooze.

Commit to healthier sleep habits.

Once you figure out how much sleep you need to feel well rested during the day, think about what changes you need to make in your life to reach that goal. Would making dinner ahead of time with a slow cooker or ordering healthy takeout more often help you get to bed earlier? Would exercising in the morning instead of after work help you to wind down in the evenings? With a few small tweaks, you'll be back in business.

It might take time to adjust your lifestyle, but the payoff of attacking each day with the sleep you need is worth it.