For many years, sleep experts have asserted that well-timed naps and sleep-ins could help people catch up on their sleep debt. Sleep debt, like credit card debt, is a liability—the result of not getting enough sleep over time.
But recent studies suggest that sleep debt might not be so easy to reverse — and that regularly falling short of getting the recommended amount of sleep could have long-term health implications. In this installment of Sleep Mythbusters, we dig into the sleep debt theory and investigate tips and tricks for getting better, more restful sleep (every night).
The Case for Sleep Debt
The term “sleep debt” was coined only a few years ago, and quickly adopted by sleep experts the world over. The term was based on long-standing research into sleep deprivation and its connection to our physiological and mental health. It is often used as shorthand for the concept of sustained and chronic sleep deprivation.
Of course, the term “sleep debt” was also coined to suggest that the effects of short-term sleep deprivation could be halted and often reversed by simply getting a few extra hours of rest as a way of ‘paying back’ accumulated sleep loss. This concept was initially rooted in a number of studies by sleep debt advocates (including Lawrence J. Epstein from Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers) that showed fatigue, listlessness and mental fogginess caused by sleep deprivation could be reversed when participants clocked in a few extra hours a few nights in a row.
The concept of sleep debt has been tested in a number of studies through the use of a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), which measures how quickly you fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day. The results have bearing on your body’s ability to “bounce back” from sleep deprivation by clocking a few extra hours of shuteye.
But as we learn more about how much the average adult should be sleeping — and how a sustained lack of sleep can sometimes cause mental and physical damage that cannot be reversed — the debate around sleep debt is shifting.
The Sleep Debt Debate
What is it about the concept of sleep debt that has certain researchers wringing their hands? Simply put, while sleep debt is a real concept, it’s often used as an excuse for falling short of recommended nightly amounts of sleep. Rather than working to repair an ineffective sleep schedule, many people suffering from chronic sleep deprivation simply “cram” sleep into their weekends and days off — a method that proves ineffective in the long term.
In fact, many researchers stress the importance of applying more long-term fixes for chronic sleep deprivation and strongly caution against falling into a pendulum swing of under- and oversleeping. That’s because our bodies are designed to sleep in regular intervals which are dictated by our circadian rhythm, sometimes referred to as our internal clock. That rhythm is controlled by particular hormones in our bodies that are either produced or suppressed by things like time of day, food intake and even our wind-down routine.
Regularly falling short of the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night can make it even harder to get quality rest on a regular basis, and napping for too long or at the wrong time of day can impact our ability to doze off at night. This is especially true for those that work the graveyard shift or need to stay awake for longer periods of time.
Tips and Tricks for Avoiding the Pitfalls of Sleep Debt
So what are the chronically sleep deprived to do? While there isn’t a complete consensus among sleep researchers on the topic of sleep debt, most experts do have recommendations to help people get better sleep on a regular basis.
Give yourself a “sleep-cation”. For those that regularly sleep less than 8 hours per night for more than a few days in a row, a “sleep-cation” could help put you back on the right track. Studies show that it can take the body up to a few weeks to fully repair its sleep cycle, so plan a week or two with limited evening responsibilities to extend your nightly sleep by an hour or two.
Change up your wake-up. Our bodies are designed to naturally awake when we’re in our lightest periods of unconsciousness — but alarm clocks designed to go off at a particular time interrupt this natural process. Instead, invest in an alarm clock or app that goes off within a particular period of time, but doesn’t do so when you’re in deep slumber. Better yet, try an alarm clock that uses slowly increasing sound or light to gently rouse the body out of sleep.
Fix your wind-down routine. Even if you’re sleeping up to 8 hours per night, the quality of that sleep can greatly impact your health and well-being. If you often wake up feeling groggy or fatigued even after a full night’s rest, your wind-down routine might be the issue. Adjust your evening activities to help boost your body’s natural ability to drift off into a deep sleep.
Resolve bedroom conflict. Couples who share a bed suffer from 50 percent more sleep disturbances than those who sleep alone. As discouraging as that statistic is there are numerous (and practical) coping mechanisms for managing sleep incompatibility. Working together to resolve bedtime issues can not only help you catch more zzzs—it can add to your marital bliss and perhaps even add healthier years to your life.
Getting consistent, quality sleep matters for your health and well-being — and in order to get quality sleep, you need a quality sleep solution. Not sure if your mattress or bedding is meeting your needs? Talk to one of our Sleep Experts!