Sleep Debt

“This week has been crazy. I have a huge report due on Friday, and I’ve stayed up late either working on it every night this week. That’s okay, though. This weekend I can catch up on sleep.” 

Does that sound familiar? Sometimes life is hectic, and our sleep schedules often suffer. Just like spending too much money can cause a financial debt, when we spend too much time awake, we build up a sleep debt! Your body needs sleep to function well, and consistently getting too little sleep can have a negative effect on your health.

Why does sleep debt matter?
Sleep is instrumental in helping our bodies stay healthy. A meta-analysis of research studies, published in 2017, found that not getting enough sleep was correlated with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more. Add in the research indicating that “short-sleepers” (those who get less than five or six hours of sleep per night) tend to have less healthful eating patterns, and you can see a compounding health effect. If something like having too much caffeine negatively impacts your sleep, which then increases your desire for more caffeine to feel awake, it can quickly become a struggle. One solution that many people try is to sleep more on weekends to “catch up” on sleep. You would think that if our sleep averages out to the recommended eight hours per night, we should be okay…right?

A 2019 research study found that may not be the case. Researchers divided participants into three groups: a control group who had nine hours to sleep, a sleep restriction group who had five hours to sleep, and a sleep restriction group who had the chance to recover sleep on the weekend. This study found that restricted sleep increased how much people ate after dinner and how well their bodies processed energy. Unfortunately, the weekend recovery did not prevent the effects of the shortened sleep, showing that just “catching up” on the weekend may not be enough.

What can you do about it?
Before we make any lifestyle changes, we first must become aware of our current actions. Take inventory of your current behaviors and routines around sleep. A sleep diary is one way to do this. Once you know your existing habits, then you can find opportunities to shift.

One common habit is called “revenge bedtime procrastination.” That is a really long name for a very simple habit – when you have too little time to relax during the day, so you stay up later to decompress before going to sleep. First off, it is totally normal and healthy to relax and unwind at the end of the day. However, if you are intentionally putting off sleep, it might be a sign that you need more downtime in the day.

Of course, not everyone can have the ideal bedtime routine. New parents, shift workers, or caregivers of ill family members all have responsibilities that they have to fulfill. That is why it is important for you to find what changes work for your life. There are many things you can try to help sleep, but here are just a few ideas you can try:
  • Stick to a schedule, even on weekends: Your body’s natural rhythm thrives on routine. By having a regular bedtime routine can help your brain learn to feel tired at the right time.
  • Tweak your tech use: The American Heart Association has five simple steps you can take to reduce the impact your electronics have one sleep:
  • Move it. Move your phone farther away from your bed when you sleep.
  • Dim it. Use a red filter app or dim your screen at night.
  • Set it. Use alarms to remind you to start your bedtime routine.
  • Lock it. Use app timers to lock yourself out of unhelpful apps at bedtime.
  • Block it. Make sure your phone is on Do Not Disturb when you’re sleeping.
  • Relax before bed: Whether it means reading a book (preferably outside of the bedroom!), listening to calming music, or meditating, take just a couple of minutes to allow yourself to reset after the day. Even if it’s just one page, one song, or one deep breath, give yourself permission to slow down and relax every evening.