Sleep Debt: What it is and why it’s dangerous | Part 2

by | Feb 28, 2022

do i have sleep debt

Sleep: most of the reading and talk are about lack of it, too much, how much, how to, and what to take. Not a lot out there on the accumulated effects – dangers – of not getting enough. Let’s talk about sleep debt…

It can take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt.

In part one of the series we talked about the 1993 crash of American International Airways Flight 808.

We went there because the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board determined the accident occurred as a consequence of errors made by the captain and crew – due to the effects of fatigue.

All of them had accumulated dangerously high amounts of sleep debt.

That was the setup and now it’s time to learn about sleep debt. The info source for this piece is an excellent article on the Sleep Foundation website. “Sleep Debt and Catching Up on Sleep” was written by Rob Newsom.

What is sleep debt?

Our friend above is suffering from the effects of sleep debt. It isn’t that he’s exhausted. No, he feels as though he’s mentally on another planet. And he’s frightened because he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him.

We all know that sufficient sleep is a major player in our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Still, it isn’t surprising that getting the right amount of sleep is a challenge for tens of millions. Work hours, commuting, socializing, relaxing, and watching TV are most often the bad guys.

Sleep debt, also referred to as sleep deficit, is the difference between the amount of sleep we need and what we actually get. It’s cumulative, so not getting the sleep we need for a couple of days can quickly add up to trouble.

But the tricky thing is, feeling tired isn’t always a sign of sleep debt. Research has shown that we can cognitively adapt to chronic inadequate sleep, so we don’t feel particularly run-down. However, we may show significant declines in physical and mental performance. That’s what happened to the crew of Flight 808.

How to avoid sleep debt

how do you fix sleep debt

“Hmm, no more taking my phone to bed. If it means better sleep, I’ll give it a go.”

The best way to avoid sleep debt is to get the amount of sleep we need. On my game, aren’t I?

Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night (“day” for night shift workers). That goes to seven to eight hours for those 65 and older. Children and teens need even more. Of course, special circumstances may require adjustments. That’s where the doc comes in.

If sleep debt has become a concern, here are some tips that’ll help us avoid it. By the way, I think with some tweaks, these will work for daytime sleepers as well…

  • Keep a set sleep schedule: The routine will help prioritize sleep. If a change is needed, implementing it in 30-60 minute increments works best.
  • Develop a nightly routine: It helps us relax and prepare for quality sleep. Setting an alarm for 30 minutes to an hour before we hit the sack, reminding us to dim the lights, turn off screens, find something relaxing to do, etc., is a great idea.
  • Take a look at our daytime habits: It’s important to get enough sun, exercise, watch the caffeine intake when it’s close to bedtime, and consider our beds as sleep and sex exclusive. We may have other habits we need to review.
  • Optimize our bedroom environment for sleep:. Keep the temperature at around 65°F/18°C, block out disruptive lights or noises, replace the mattress, pillows, or sheets and blankets if they’re in rough shape.

The bottom-line: it’s on us to minimize sleep debt risk. That means knowing how much sleep we need and doing all we can to get it.

How to recover from sleep debt

I’d be willing to bet the first remedies most would turn to in sleep debt recovery are naps and sleeping-in on the weekends.

Sure, a little snooze may help us feel more refreshed, but the effects are gone in a couple of hours. Another issue is catching a little extra rest can provide a false sense of recovery. We may feel better for a little while, but the snowballing effects of sleep debt will only take longer to melt away.

Sleeping-in on the weekends won’t do much good either. Research has shown it doesn’t reverse the metabolic dysregulation and potential weight gain that come with sleep loss.

Did you know this? It can take up to four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt. And only a full recovery from sleep debt will return our bodies to baseline, reversing the troubling cognitive and physical effects.

Tips for catching-up on sleep

So, let’s say we’ve accepted our accumulation of sleep debt and want to pay it off. Since we may have a lot of catching-up to do, here we go again with tips…

  • Be consistent: Do our best to keep bedtime and wake-up times the same, even on weekends. It’ll give us a better shot at resyncing our circadian rhythms.
  • Keep a diary: A sleep diary can help us track our sleep patterns and anything that may be interfering with our sleep. Give the National Sleep Foundation’s diary a go.
  • Try an afternoon nap: I know, I downplayed naps. However, for night shift workers and those struggling to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, a short snooze may be helpful with getting through the rest of the day.
  • Be patient: Keep in mind, it can take days to recover from sleep debt. That’s because we’re increasing our sleep time slowly – say, 15-30 minutes at a time until we reach the amount of sleep we need.
  • Check-in with the doc: If sleep debt is interfering with awake-time activities or we’re having trouble with recovery, it’s time to chat with the doc. I mean, who knows? There could be an undiagnosed sleep disorder at play. Plus, we may pick up some personalized tips for improving our sleep.

If, for whatever reason, catching-up on sleep is a priority, why not give these a go?

Rest well

That’s going to do it for this piece, as well as the sleep debt series. Perhaps you found it relevant, even helpful.

Again, most of the reading and talk about sleep doesn’t include the accumulated effects – dangers – of not getting enough. But we handled it, didn’t we?

Rest well…

Lots of important background info, so if you haven’t already, be sure to read part one.

And take the time to read Sleep Debt and Catching Up on Sleep. While you’re there, explore the Sleep Foundation site. Excellent resource material.

Oh, don’t forget about the hundreds of Chipur mood and anxiety disorder info and inspiration articles. Peruse those titles.

Bill White is not a physician and provides this information for educational purposes only. Contact your physician with questions and for advice and recommendations.

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