Aug 30, 2015

The Truth About Sleep Debt

We’ve all heard the term “sleep debt”, an accumulation of hours of lost sleep, but can this debt be repaid?

Irregular sleep patterns are considered completely normal in our society. Most of us are not strangers to skimping (out of necessity or habit) on sleep during the week, and trying to catch up on the weekends by sleeping late or napping. Unfortunately, research has found that trying to make up for lost sleep on weekends simply doesn’t work.

The most common recommendation for sleep duration is 7–9 hours a night, so if you’re only getting five hours of sleep on weeknights, you’re 10–20 hours behind by the time the weekend rolls around. The odds that you’ll be clocking up that many extra hours on weekends on top of the usual 7–9 hours at night are slim, and even if you did, your life would probably suffer in other ways (like a lack of social interaction, missing exercise, or foregoing recreation and fun in general).

There is no doubt that sleep is more important than we give it credit for: research has shown that reaction times and driving performance can be affected by just one sleepless night. Sleep is also essential for memory and can help fight obesity. A Harvard study has shown that the more sleep-deprived we become, the less able we are to recognize it. Imagine how much happier and more effective we’d be if we were getting enough sleep!

So if sleeping all weekend isn’t the solution to paying off your sleep debt, then what is? Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers recommends making up your lost hours gradually. By adding one to two extra hours of sleep per weeknight, and three to four per weekend, you’ll be able to reset your debt and feel more rested and alert without perpetuating the unhealthy all-or-nothing weeknight/weekend sleep cycle.

It’s true that not everyone needs a full nine hours a night, but everyone needs at least six, even if they don’t realize it. A University of Chicago study discovered a strong link between sleep deprivation and heart disease. This is partly because sleep lowers blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, and without these dips the heart becomes stressed. Although there are variables in exactly how much sleep and when is best, one thing is certain: sleep is one of the most important factors of health, so turn off the TV, close your laptop, and get an early night!