How To Repay Your Sleep Debt
Unlike other types of debt, if you owe your body some well-deserved rest, no one’s going to call your house 15 times a day or bang your door down till you cough up your dues. However, much like what you may owe on your credit card, every day you fail to repay your sleep debt results in accrued interest in the form of snowballing health problems.
What exactly is sleep debt? Simply put, it’s the difference between how much sleep you need and how much you’re actually getting. Every time you lose out on an hour of sleep, it goes in the sleep debt column. You can have a massive sleep debt by skipping an entire night or two, or slowly build one up by sleeping less than you should for many nights at a time. For most adults, less than seven hours of rest per night qualifies as "not enough," while kids and teens need upwards of 9 hours for proper growth and development.
The most important thing to know about sleep debt is this: While you can pay your credit card back in one fell swoop and bring your balance to zero, you cannot—contrary to popular belief—pay back your sleep debt with a day or two of hibernation.
Let’s say you work a demanding job and sleep for an average of five or six hours per night. Unless you’re genetically set up for functioning on minimal sleep (you probably aren’t), you’re building up a sleep debt of two or three hours per night. No problem, you figure, since you’ll make it all up on the weekend, right?
Wrong. In controlled studies of people who follow patterns similar to this, "making up" the time by sleeping extra hours on the weekend does not return functioning to baseline levels. In one landmark study, while participants’ levels of daytime sleepiness went back to normal after a few days of catching up on sleep, their performance in a task that measured their psychological and physical vigilance did not improve. The takeaway from this is that even if you don’t feel tired after recovering from sleep deprivation for a weekend, you’re far from functioning at a normal level.
If you owe a sleep debt, the only effective way to pay it back is in increments. Tack a few extra hours of sleep per night to make up for the hours you’ve lost, and once you’re back to baseline, do everything you can to avoid sliding back into debt. Remember: the consequences of chronic sleep deprivation stretch beyond poor performance into health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and various mood disorders. There is no debt that is as important to pay back!