• Naveen Singh Chandel

Debunking Myths: Sleep Debt

Sleep debt accumulated during the week cannot be repaid by sleeping heavy on the weekend. Sleep debt negatively impacts our attention level, stress, and even contributes to heart diseases.

Getting enough sleep is important for us to function at our optimum levels of productivity during our waking hours. Doctors recommend that an adult should get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night. 

WHAT IS SLEEP DEBT?

Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep our body requires and the amount of sleep our body is getting. Sleep is like a bank account with a minimum balance penalty. The penalty involves a negative impact on our attention, stress, inflammation, and daytime sleepiness. The low-grade inflammation from lack of sleep is associated with a host of health complications, especially heart diseases. 

[caption id="attachment_13916" align="aligncenter" width="2048"] Daytime sleepiness is the most obvious signal that you have a sleep debt[/caption]

Myth: We can "catch up" on our sleep debt by sleeping in on the weekends.

Fact: Sleeping heavy on the weekends does not even come close to repaying our sleep debt accumulated over an entire week or longer.

The sleep debt theory states that the negative effect of sleep debt over five days can be largely reversed by sleeping heavy on the weekends. Unfortunately, this is not true and sleep debt accumulated over time is extremely hard to repay. Studies show that test subjects that were sleep-deprived by 1 hour every night for a week, did not recover their impaired attention on Monday, even after sleeping overtime on the weekends. Just because we slept Saturday and Sunday doesn't mean we'll be sharp Monday morning. In fact, this irregular sleeping pattern makes matters worse for us as it throws off our Circadian rhythm and makes it difficult to fall asleep on Sunday nights. This often results in us starting the new week on Monday with an even bigger sleep debt.

Myth: Our brain learns how to work with less sleep and re-adjusts it's speed accordingly

Fact: Our brain does not even register that it's slowing down because of a heavy sleep debt

Studies show that sleep-deprived subjects don't even realize that their cognitive functions kept declining the more the sleep debt piled up. Their test scores continued to decline even though they didn't feel any difficulty in giving the tests. This showcases that when we're in the grips of sleep debt, we don’t even remember what it's like to feel well-rested. Yet, our cognitive capacity keeps deteriorating slowly with the increase in sleep debt.

THE GOOD NEWS

Sleep debt is not irreversible. Fortunately, with some persistence, we can chip away at our sleep debt. Here are the basics to get you started:

Short-term debt: If you have missed roughly 8 hours of sleep overall in the past one week, add 2 extra hours of sleep every night for two weeks until you have repaid the debt fully. It will take roughly two weeks of regular quality sleep to pay off just one week's sleep deficit.

Long-term debt: If you have been sleeping less for years, it won't be possible to recover the damage done to the brain in a few weeks. Here, the right approach would be to create healthy sleep habits.

  1. Bedtime: Plan your day such that you can go to bed early enough so that you wake up when you need to, naturally. This means you're getting enough restful sleep.

  2. Naps: Taking long naps can interfere with your ability to sleep on time at night. However, a 60-90 minute nap in the afternoon can help add up to your progress in paying off that massive sleep debt.

  3. Commit to a healthier lifestyle: This will prevent you from collecting new sleep debt. E.g. eating at least 2 hours before bedtime, not bringing work home, exercising in the mornings, etc.

Even though we don't consciously realize how sleep deprived we get after a certain period of time, the sleep debt keeps growing, along with the health complications it brings. While changing our lifestyle is a challenging process, taking care of our daily sleep requirement is a great place to start.

For more tips on how to sleep better, read here.