Written by: Reneé Prince
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Sherrie Neustein
Updated March 9, 2021
Everyone has an off night now and then. But in today’s always-on world, it can be tough to get the seven to nine hours of sleep that adults require each night. Over time, missing just two or three hours of sleep per night can build up a major sleep debt that takes real effort to overcome. If you are experiencing a sleep deficit, it's important to learn how to identify and how to fix sleep deprivation.
What Is Sleep Debt?
Research shows that when you pull a single all-nighter and then drive to work the next day, you’re as impaired as someone legally drunk (1). This extreme negative effect of one night without sleep is likely due to increased amounts of a chemical known as adenosine (2) in your body, which impacts the hippocampus portion of the brain (3). This chemical is responsible for the increasing urge to sleep that occurs as the night wears on, and its levels normally decrease as you sleep. But if you don't sleep, adenosine levels will not decrease (4).
An all-nighter is an extreme example of sleep debt. Sleep debt also occurs when you miss smaller amounts of sleep over multiple nights. To better understand sleep debt, think in terms of a bank account. Sleep is the money you deposit, and wakefulness is the money you withdraw. Ideally, your sleep and wakefulness should balance. But, if you take out more than you put in, you start to build up a sleep debt.
Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, so the first step to reducing sleep debt is to figure out how much sleep you actually need. If you’re experiencing sleep deprivation symptoms, such as daytime sleepiness, irritability, and fatigue, you likely have a sleep debt.
Chronic sleep debt tends to cause cognitive problems (5), poor decision-making, and a general feeling of unwellness. Sleep debt can also have a long-term impact on both your physical and mental health. Fortunately, sleep debt recovery is possible with a few lifestyle changes.
Improve Sleep Hygiene Habits
For some people, sleep debt is the result of poor sleep hygiene. This broad term refers to the small rituals you can do to show your body that it’s time to sleep. Examples of good sleep hygiene habits (6) include:
- Turning off your electronic devices at least 30 minutes before going to bed
- Setting the room to a comfortable sleeping temperature
- Turning off all lights (with the possible exception of a dim red lightbulb)
- Using relaxation techniques, such as meditation or mild stretching.
Over time, following the same winding-down routine each night can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep all night.
Make Up Sleep on Weekends, on Vacation, and in Naps
Sleep debt recovery time depends on your level of sleep deprivation. If you’ve only missed a little bit of sleep during the week, you might be able to catch up on the weekend.
However, to combat chronic sleep debt, you'll need a long-term plan that ultimately leads to better, more sustainable sleep habits. A seven-day plan can help you gently make up for lost sleep.
On the weekend, aim to go to bed one or two hours earlier than usual and wake up one to two hours later than usual. If you normally sleep from midnight to 8 a.m., go to bed between 10 and 11 p.m. and wake up between 9 and 10 a.m. Then during the week, go to bed 30 minutes earlier and wake up 30 minutes later than usual (sleeping from 11:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.).
If you’re too pressed for time in your daily life to easily shift your sleep schedule, or if you have an even bigger sleep debt, you might consider taking a sleep vacation.
A vacation means being away from all your daily stressors and responsibilities, which can certainly help you relax. Just like sleeping on the weekends, though, keep in mind that oversleeping on vacation might make it difficult to return to a normal sleep schedule afterward. Instead of staying up later than you do in everyday life while on vacation, aim to use the time to settle into a healthier nighttime sleeping pattern.
Napping to catch up on sleep is okay, but keep naps short and try to take them early in the day. Too much daytime sleep, or napping too close to bedtime, can also disrupt your routine.
Moderate exercise during the day can improve nighttime sleep (7). The Centers for Disease Control recommends exercising 150 minutes per week, which could be broken into 30-minute segments, five days each week (8).
If you have time, a brisk workout in the morning can help you feel more awake, even after a poor night’s sleep. Otherwise, anytime through the early evening is fine. Try to complete your workout by at least two hours before you go to bed, however. Since exercising generates endorphins and increases body temperature, some people have difficulty falling asleep immediately afterward (9) when they exercise in the evening, especially those who consider themselves early birds.
Light stretching or yoga (10), though, can help promote sleep. Consider doing 15 minutes or so of gentle movement shortly before climbing into bed.
Limit Caffeine and Alcohol
Although a glass of wine can help you relax and might even make you feel sleepy, it’s best to avoid alcohol in the last two hours before bed (11). Even a small amount can be disruptive to your sleep cycles, leading to a light, fragmented sleep that might leave you feeling even worse.
Many people use caffeine to increase their alertness in the morning. As long as you’re healthy, there’s no real harm in consuming a moderate amount of coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverage. If you have sleep debt, however, you might want to cut back on caffeine or limit it to the mornings and early afternoons. Caffeine's stimulant effect can last for hours, making it tough to fall asleep and causing insomnia (12). To avoid this problem, switch to caffeine-free beverages in the evening.
Chronic sleep deprivation is a fact of life for many people, since sleep is often sacrificed when we try to juggle multiple priorities. Fortunately, though, sleep debt is possible to overcome. Take steps to improve your sleep hygiene, minimize your evening caffeine and alcohol consumption, and engage in daytime exercise. Also, work on gently catching up on sleep over time. Making incremental changes may be difficult at times, but overcoming the habit of accruing sleep debt is well worth the effort.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1739867/ Accessed on February 17, 2021.
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- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25127157/ Accessed on February 17, 2021.
- .https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm,Accessed on February 17, 2021.
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