March 28, 2018

Recovering From Sleep Deprivation

Your sleep debt is the difference between the hours of sleep you should be getting, and the hours of sleep you actually get. For those of us who currently sleep for less than 7 hours each night, carrying "sleep debt" might feel normal. After all, everyone has a late night once in a while. But just like financial debt, the real cost of that lost sleep could be more than you ever imagined.

A cup of coffee or power nap can give you the boost you need to get through a particularly tiring day, but these quick fixes don't address the long-term effects of sleep deprivation. Just one lost hour of sleep each night during the week results in 5 hours of sleep debt that you need to make up on the weekend! Over time, a lack of sleep can take its toll, resulting in serious health issues like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Science has shown that you can pay off a short-term sleep debt fairly quickly (in days or weeks), but the more debt you accumulate, the harder it is to catch up. Unfortunately, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation accumulate over time. The more sleep-deprived you are, the longer your body needs to recover, so it gets harder to pay off that debt as quickly as it builds up. Some suggest that it may be impossible to recover completely after you've accumulated more than 20 hours of sleep debt, but there are no long-term studies to support that. The truth is, we just don't know yet.

So what can you do if you've been running up your sleep debt for months or even years? It might seem obvious to just turn off your alarm on Saturday mornings, but oversleeping on the weekend can end up doing more harm than good by throwing off your circadian rhythm. You might even struggle to fall asleep on Sunday night, leaving you with a "sleep hangover" on Monday, and even more sleep debt than you started with!

Luckily, there is still hope for those of us who are regularly missing out on sleep! Read on for some strategies to recover from sleep debt without throwing off your entire week.

Strategies to Repay Your Sleep Debt

When it comes to repaying sleep debt, slow and steady is the way to go. Too much sleep at one time can wreck your sleep schedule, leaving you over-tired. Instead, you should focus on building healthy sleep habits in the long-term and taking short naps as needed for an extra boost.

  • Change your bedtime. Try to keep a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Instead of sleeping in, try going to bed an hour earlier and waking up at your regular time instead. That way, you'll still feel tired enough to sleep the following evening!
  • Take naps.A nap can be a great way to quickly catch up on some lost zzz's. But just like sleeping in, taking too long of a nap can be detrimental to your overall sleep health. A quick 20-minute power nap in the afternoon is the best way to catch up without wrecking your sleep schedule, but you can get away with a 60-90 minute nap instead if you really need it.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.A morning cup of coffee is fine, but even one cup in the afternoon can translate to big issues when it's time to sleep at night. The same goes for alcohol - even though it can help you fall asleep faster, it reduces the quality of your sleep so you still feel drowsy in the morning.
  • Exercise regularly.It's important to burn off your extra energy before bed to get a better sleep. However, you should avoid exercising within 3 hours of your bedtime so the endorphin rush from the exercise has time to wear off.

For many of us, sleep deprivation is just a fact of life. But with a little persistence, you can repay your sleep debt over time by napping, going to bed earlier, and working to build healthier sleep habits. You may not be able to recover all of the hours you've lost over the years, but you can begin to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation and work toward a healthier future!