During the week, many people will stay up late and wake up early to remain caught up on work and/or household chores. They justify this by stating they will sleep in over the weekend to “catch up” on the sleep they missed. Unfortunately, this will not help you make up for serious “sleep debt.”

Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep. It results from chronic lack of sleep or sleep deprivation. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in three Americans suffers from chronic sleep deprivation. For optimum health, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends that adults sleep between seven to nine hours nightly. Even if you lose under 30 minutes of sleep nightly, the accumulated loss is equal to more than two weeks of sleep debt a year. Psychiatrist William C. Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Clinic states that, “People accumulate sleep debt surreptitiously, it’s quiet and sneaky; many of us may only notice it during the fall and spring time changes, when our systems are expected to adjust to clock time (as opposed to biological time). It is a key reason why we feel tired all the time. Worst of all, it’s cumulative.”

To figure out your sleep debt, you will need to use your math skills, and have patience. It will take some time: For the next 365 days (yes, a whole year) you will need to keep a record. Every day, take the number of nightly hours you should be getting and subtract the amount of sleep you actually get. At the end of the year, look at the total. Those hours are your sleep debt for the year. You are likely to find that the amount of time you tried to “catch up” on your sleep over the weekends did little to alter that number.

Sleeping in on Saturday or Sunday may seem like the perfect way to get back the sleep you lost during your insane week, but the truth is that it will not help with continuing sleep debt. While you may feel more refreshed that day, it will have no effect on the negative, growing effects of sleep loss. Sleep is the third pillar of health, falling after a healthy diet and regular exercise. When we accrue sleep debt, we put our health at risk.

The Effects of Sleep Debt on Your Mental and Physical Health

The occasional night without adequate sleep won’t permanently impact your health, however, continued insufficient sleep could result in behavioral and physical problems.

Behavioral Problems Often Caused by Sleep Debt
  • Irritability
  • Poor judgment
  • Attention deficit
  • Drowsy driving
  • Memory issues
  • Emotional stress
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Poor risk management
  • Depression
  • Workplace accidents

Also, people with a high sleep debt are reported to do poorly on intelligence tests, and their beliefs in superstitious and magical thinking increase.

Physical Problems Often Caused by Sleep Debt
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Worsened vision
  • Physical stress
  • Advanced aging
  • Reduced motor dexterity
  • Weight gain/obesity
  • Cerebral shrinkage
  • Systemic inflammation

Systemic inflammation can lead to major health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.

How to Know if You Have Sleep Debt

As you can see, it is important to get the right amount of sleep. If you are concerned that you may have accrued a high sleep debt, the NSF has created a self-checklist for people to reference. If you can answer yes to any of the following questions provided by the National Sleep Foundation, you might want to consider getting help for your sleep deprivation.

  • Are you productive, healthy and happy on seven hours of sleep? Or does it take you nine hours or more of quality sleep to get you going?
  • Do you have health issues such as being overweight? Are you at risk for any disease?
  • Are you experiencing sleep problems?
  • Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day?
  • Do you feel sleepy when driving?

How to Prevent Sleep Debt

Weekend sleep “catch up” is, unfortunately, unrealistic. The idea of a “sleep bank” where you can deposit and pull from is misleading. You cannot store sleep for later, and you cannot go without adequate sleep for days and expect not to build sleep debt. Each night you miss out on quality sleep, you are adding to your debt. Use the following tips to prioritize sleep and avoid sleep deprivation.

  • Within an hour or two of bedtime, you should avoid all screens. This includes smartphones, computers, tablets, televisions, and other handheld devices. If you like to read at night, and your book is on an electronic reader, invest in a blue-light blocking screen or “blue-blocking” reading glasses, or use a nonbacklit device.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise within three to four hours of bedtime. It will alter your body chemistry just enough to make it difficult to fall asleep. Relaxing yoga exercises are okay.
  • Avoid large meals right before bed. If you have a large meal make sure it is completed at least two hours before sleep. Eating right before bed can cause a variety of digestive problems and make it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep.
  • Avoid working on stressful intellectual tasks within an hour or two of bedtime as they hinder your brain and body’s need to prepare for sleep. If you are stressed when it is time to wind down, try journaling your worries away. It should help you for at least the night.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine and follow it every night.
  • Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, including weekends. Eventually, your body will figure your schedule and you will discover yourself ready to go to sleep at the right time before you even look at a clock, and most likely waking before your alarm or right with it.
  • If you have health concerns or believe you may have a sleep disorder, have it checked out.

“When you put away sleep debt, you become superhuman,” says Dr. Dement. If you would like to feel that way, all you need to do is make sleep a priority again. If you are having trouble sleeping at night and you feel that you would benefit from a sleep study, we invite you to call the Valley Sleep Center at 480.830.3900 and schedule a sleep consultation at one of our five convenient Valley locations.