Sleep Debt Explained: Symptoms, Recovery, Treatment And Myths!


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Getting enough sleep is vital for living your best – from various health benefits to increased productivity, and for safety reasons. Adults typically need around seven to nine hours of sleep for optimal rest.

However, for more than 40% of the world population, seven hours of sleep is, unfortunately, wishful thinking.

We need sleep, and we are biologically programmed to be sure that we get enough of it. We get sleepy in two ways: our body raises the level of adenosine, and send signals to the circadian clock.

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As we move through the day, adenosine levels rise and interact with the brain region that regulates wakefulness. Much like a dimmer switch, it turns down many processes, like memory, attention, reactions to various stimuli. As the levels of adenosine in the brain rise, we feel drowsier and sleepier.

The circadian rhythm regulates many functions in our bodies – including a sleep-wake cycle, body temperature, levels of enzymes and hormones, etc. Together with the rising adenosine levels, it establishes an ideal bedtime for each of us.

Now, for most of us, sleepiness peaks between midnight and 6 in the morning. We also experience a short period of sleepiness during the day, somewhere between 2 pm and 4 pm.

This means that most of us are ready for bed, biologically, at 10 – 11 pm. However, we usually have many reasons to postpone sleep, like social media, late-night TV programs, and video games. These can keep us up until midnight, sometimes even longer.

Typically, there’s little reason for concern since you can still get 9 hours of shuteye even if you go to bed after midnight. Unless you’re employed, which, most of us are.

In that case, you have to get up early in the morning, which results in insufficient time spent sleeping. And that’s how sleep debt is created.

What is Sleep Debt

“Sleep debt” is a term that describes a cumulative sleep LOSS, resulting from an ongoing sleep restriction. If you regularly get less rest than you need, your sleep debt will grow over time, which can make you tired, moody, and prone to accidents and illness.

Imagine that sleep is a credit card company:

It’s all good and nice until you’ve created a debt. And now, you’re in trouble.

Your circadian rhythm, along with the sleep-wake process, creates a sleep homeostat. You can think of it as your internal biological sleep schedule.

The sleep homeostat accounts for the amount of rest you’ve experienced in the past and bases your sleep drive for the future. This is the internal clock that tells you what the correct time for you to go to bed is and just how much rest you require.

Respecting your internal sleep schedule greatly affects your productivity and your overall health. But failure to get enough rest creates a debt, which can be detrimental to our health.

In fact, the greater the sleep debt, the less capable we are of recognizing it. And once sleep deprivation sets in, it’ll be hard even to remember what it’s like to be fully rested.

Unless “repaid,” the debt continues to increase, so do the health consequences, and growing risks of gaining weight, heart disease, memory loss, and diabetes.

Girl experiencing sleep paralysis

In some cases, sleep debt is a result of medical conditions, like insomnia. In those cases, it’s recommended to seek medical attention.

Fortunately for us, the sleep bank doesn’t charge interest on your unpaid balance or requires an immediate one-for-one repayment. With a little bit of work and discipline, you can erase even a chronic sleep debt.

But we do have to be careful because it’s easy to slip back. And this bank doesn’t send monthly reminders that your behind on your payments. But once it does, it usually means that your health is in danger.

Types of Sleep Debt

Basically, there are two types of sleep debt, which are the results of either partial sleep deprivation, or total sleep deprivation.

  • Partial deprivation occurs when a person sleeps too little for several days or weeks, sometimes even months. The short-term side effects in partial deprivation are decreased cognitive functions, memory impairment, reduced alertness, and reflexes.
  • Total deprivation occurs when a person is being kept awake for at least 24 hours, or longer. Short-term effects may include severe cognitive and memory impairment, reduced wakefulness, and reflexes. If a person is being kept awake long enough, loss of consciousness may occur, and in worst cases – death.

Various studies have concluded that people who sleep 6 hours a night for ten days perform similarly to people who had been sleep-deprived for one day.

These conclusions tell us that small, consecutive sleep debts amount to massive sleep debt. Reducing rest time for just 30 minutes each night may not seem like a lot, but those minutes can add up and become a huge debt.

For that very reason, any type of sleep deprivation has detrimental consequences for your health. Partial deprivation can go on for years, resulting in severe health issues.

Long-term consequences include disruptions in hormone secretion, such as nighttime melatonin release. Chronic rest deprivation also leads to other chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

Repaying Your Sleep Debt

If you’ve spent a few weeks or months chipping away a few minutes from your sleep time, inevitably, you’ll end up with a sleep debt. Most people think that closing the blinds and turning off the alarm during weekend mornings would be enough, but it isn’t.

Sleeping longer during weekends may have an opposite effect. Sleeping in throws off your circadian rhythm and makes it harder to fall asleep on Sunday night. This means that you’re starting your Monday morning with an even bigger sleep debt than before.

So, is there an adequate way to repay sleep debt?

Well, unfortunately, no – for the most part. Once created, your sleep debt becomes a full-on sleep deprivation, and your missed hours of sleep are gone for good.

Going earlier to bed for a night or two can help restore some of the cognitive decline caused by amassing sleep debt. But it’s impossible to “repay” hundreds of hours’ worth of sleep.

However, when a sleep-deprived individual slumbers, his body spends more time in deeper stages of sleep, as opposed to lighter-stage sleep. Deeper stages are more restorative. Still, this doesn’t mean that it should be done. Both stages are equally important for our health.

Erasing Sleep Debt

Unfortunately, you can’t make up for hours and days lost to the sleep debt. Sure, you can make up for an hour or two by going to bed earlier. But you can’t make up for many sleepless nights of your teenage days. In that case, what’s lost – stays lost. So, how to deal with a sleep debt?

Well, first, you need to stop adding to your debt. And you do that by making a real, conscious effort to get an adequate amount of rest each night.

Night time is best for sleeping. It’s due to the release of a hormone called melatonin. A pineal gland releases melatonin, which, amongst other things, helps regulate our circadian rhythm.

Melatonin levels peak at night, reaching levels that are ten times higher than daytime concentrations. And for that very reason, nights are best spent resting.

So, the very first thing you need to do is to establish a consistent sleep schedule. Determine the amount of rest you need to feel fully rested, and create a sleep schedule that allows enough time.

Sleeping in can make it harder to fall asleep the next night, so you should strive to go to bed earlier. This way, you can get up at a normal time, fully rested.

Setting up a schedule can be frustrating in the beginnings.

Going to bed earlier can result in a lot of tossing and turning. It’s best to try backing up your bedtime by 15 – 30 minutes per night, to shift your body’s internal clock gradually, and avoid tossing and turning.

It’s perfectly fine to sleep in on the weekends. Just don’t sleep later than two hours past your usual wake up time. Resting for any more than that can throw off your sleep-wake cycle. Also, you should try and keep alcohol to a minimum.

Use naps, but use them wisely, since they can be a double-edged sword. Napping can be a quick way to shave a few hours off your sleep debt.

However, naps shouldn’t be shorter than 20 minutes, or longer than an hour, or an hour and a half. Anything longer than that, can throw off your internal clock, and make it troublesome to fall asleep at night.

Commit to Healthier Sleep Habits

Creating and maintaining a sleep schedule isn’t enough to eradicate your debt and reap the benefits of healthy sleep habits. To achieve your goal, you should make some lifestyle changes as well.

Practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual can be beneficial. A relaxing activity conducted before bedtime, away from electronics, can help you separate your rest time from excitement and stress.

Those activities can include reading, meditating, or simply making a relaxing small talk with your partner.
Daily exercise is beneficial, and not just for sleep. You could do it anytime during the day, but no later than three hours before bed.

You should also avoid LCD screens, like to ones on your TV, smartphone or personal computer, for at least an hour before bedtime. Blue light emitted by those screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin and increase alertness. Light from fluorescent bulbs and LED lights can produce the same effect.

For that very reason, your room should be dark and cool.

Design your sleep environment to be free from any light sources, and sources of noise, or other distractions.

You should also keep the temperature of your bedroom at about 60° – 67°F (15° – 20°C). Cool space is better at initiating rest because your body temperature also lowers naturally during rest.

Sleeping on a comfortable mattress and pillows also helps. You should make sure that your mattress is comfortable and supportive.

Alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine are stimulants, and they can disrupt sleep. Eating a large or spicy meal, which can cause indigestion problems, can also disrupt your rest time.

You should avoid eating large meals two to three hours before going to bed. If you’re hungry, eat a light snack, but not later than 45 minutes before bed.

Like it’s said before, avoid bright light before going to bed. However, it’s recommended that you expose yourself to sunlight in the morning, when you wake up. This will help regulate your melatonin levels and keep your circadian rhythm in check.


Many experts believe that chronic, long-term sleep deprivation is a public health problem that still grows across many populations over the world. This issue can result in dire economic and social consequences, as the accumulated sleep debt negatively impacts mood and cognitive performance.

Since sleep is a vital component of our health, ongoing deprivation is also linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular illness, fatigue, and driving accidents.

Still, the short-term sleep debt can be settled by adding an extra hour or two on your next rest session, without incurring severe consequences. Long-term debt, unfortunately, cannot be settled, only avoided in the future.

Please, be vigilant, because it’s rather easy to backslide into a new sleep debt cycle. The best thing to do is to adhere to a strict sleep schedule and healthy sleep and lifestyle habits.

Only by adhering to the rules of a strict rest schedule and healthy habits can you reap their benefits. Improved cognition and immune response, reduced stress, and lower blood pressure are just some of the benefits of good rest.

So, if you thought that sleep doesn’t really matter that much, think again, because it matters a great deal.