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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: Pay Off Your Sleep Debt

By January 6, 2013

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In these economic times, we are perhaps overly familiar with financial matters, including debts. As we put our collective financial house in order, it similarly may be appropriate to focus on improving our sleep by paying off our sleep debt. What is a sleep debt and what can be done about it?

The concept of sleep debt is meant to highlight that there are consequences to failing to meet your individual sleep needs and that, to a limited extent, you can correct this sleep deficit. As previously discussed, everyone has a specific sleep requirement in order to feel rested. Although it may average close to 8 hours, there is some variability, with some people requiring more or less. When you fail to get enough sleep to meet your requirement, you will begin to accumulate a sleep debt.

The most important consequences of inadequate total sleep time relate to sleep deprivation. There are specific symptoms that occur, from sleepiness to poor concentration to mood changes. There may be physical effects, including weight gain and decreased pain tolerance. Some people will experience hallucinations in extreme sleep deprivation. It may even increase your risk of death.

Many people will attempt to recuperate lost sleep by varying their sleep schedules. If you have to get up early to go to work on weekdays, you may not get an adequate amount of sleep. By the weekend, when you have more control of when you wake up, you may sleep in to catch up on the lost sleep. In a sense, you are running up a sleep debt during the week (which manifests as sleep deprivation) and then paying it off by sleeping more on the weekend.

How might this work? One important occurrence during sleep is the clearance of a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine. This chemical contributes to sleepiness and is responsible for the homeostatic sleep drive, in which the longer we stay awake, the more likely we are to fall asleep. When we do not have enough pillow time, we cannot fully clear out the accumulated adenosine. We are left with the residual mental effects described above. By extending the total sleep time on the weekends, we can finish clearing it out.

There are limits to this ability, it seems. If we had a period of sleep deprivation in the remote past, we are unable to make up for it by catching up on sleep now. It is unclear what long-lasting consequences result from sleep deprivation, but the health effects of sleep disorders suggest that these may not be insignificant.

If you find yourself running up a sleep debt, it is rather simple to correct the situation. Once you have determined your sleep needs, you should ensure that you allow an adequate amount of time in bed to meet it. Initially, you may need to sleep in several days in a row to make up for the recent sleep that you have lost. By thereafter maintaining an adequate sleep period, you will avoid the undesirable consequences of chronic sleep deprivation.

As you make broader changes to sleep better, it will be key to build a solid foundation and start by paying off your sleep debt.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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