Medical evidence shows that most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night in order to function optimally. Between the all-nighters in college, a growing household, new job demands, and everyday stress, most adults suffer from a chronic and accumulating sleep deprivation—also known as sleep debt.
Think of Sleep like a Bank Account
Sleep debt is the difference between how much sleep you’re supposed to get and the actual amount you do. In a 2005 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, Americans, on average, reported sleeping 6.9 hours per night. While some people may only require six hours of sleep, others will need ten. This survey then shows that, on average, we are losing one hour of sleep each night, i.e. going into “sleep debt.”
The more tired we get, the less tired we feel. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of alertness if your sleep schedule has been a bit wacky lately. Studies show that short-term sleep deprivation leads to irritability, foggy- or fuzzy-mindedness, difficulty remembering things, compromised vision and impaired driving. Long-term effects can include weight gain, heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes and stroke.
As with Most Debt, Sleep Debt can be “Repaid”
Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, regional medical director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers, has been treating patients with sleep disorders for more than twenty years. His advice for closing the gap on the deficit is to:
- Take care of any short-term debt immediately. If you’ve lost out on about 10 hours of sleep over the last week, aim to add an additional hour or two per night and an extra three to four over the weekend.
- Don’t forget about the long-term debt. You may need to plan a vacation to accomplish this one completely, but try to find a week or so in your schedule where you have little-to-no itinerary and the freedom to forget your alarm clock. Go to bed at the same time each night and allow yourself to wake naturally. Your body’s circadian clock will adjust to your sleep needs accordingly.
- Keep to your new routine. Factor your newly-vetted sleep requirements into your schedule and stick to it! Try not to fall back into a sleep debt cycle.
Once your sleep debt has been “repaid,” your body’s efficiency at repairing and rejuvenating itself during sleep will become optimal. Being well-rested will increase mental and physical capabilities, improve your health and will allow you to reach your fullest potential!