Sleep Debt: The Price We Pay for Poor Rest – CNET

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Feeling cranky is far from the only problem caused by a lack of sleep. Many health issues can stem from sleep deprivation, from heart disease to mental health disorders. If you routinely have trouble sleeping, you could go into sleep debt, where your body doesn’t get the quality sleep it needs. Fortunately, it’s not too late, and we have some tips for paying that debt off.

What is sleep debt?

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When you don’t get as much sleep as you need, you can go into “sleep debt” — also known as sleep deficit. For example, if you need 8 hours of sleep but get only five on a particular night, you’d have a sleep debt of 3 hours. Sleep debt can accumulate, so if you got 6 hours of sleep the next night, you’d have a sleep debt of 5 hours over two days. 

Sleep debt can harm your health, negatively affecting your mood and putting you at a higher risk of chronic illness.

Signs you’re accumulating sleep debt

There are some tell-tale signs that you may be accumulating sleep debt. Keep an eye out for symptoms such as:

  • Falling asleep when you don’t intend to, such as when watching TV 
  • Feeling sluggish and yawning throughout the day
  • Experiencing low motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Decreased coordination or poor balance
  • Increased cravings for calorie-dense foods
  • Feeling anxious or stressed

Common causes of sleep debt

From stress to an irregular sleep schedule, there are many possible reasons you might not get enough shut-eye — which could lead to sleep debt.

Stress and anxiety

Whether you’re worried about your job, family or health, feeling stressed or anxious can make it harder to fall or stay asleep and put you into sleep debt. To make matters worse, not sleeping enough can increase your stress and anxiety levels in your daily life.

Read more: 5 Ways to Cope When Sleep Anxiety Keeps You From Getting Quality Rest

Screen time

Many of us watch TV or scroll on our phones before going to bed, but studies have shown that these habits can prevent us from falling asleep or getting good-quality sleep. If your screen time cuts into your sleep time, you can start to accumulate sleep debt.

Man reclining on couch using a tablet computer.

Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

Irregular sleep hours

If you’re a shift worker or have young children, you might find it difficult to follow a consistent sleep schedule. As a result, you could lose out on valuable rest every night, making it easy to slip into sleep debt.

Read more: 6 Game-Changing Habits That’ll Help You Sleep Better

Health consequences of sleep debt

Sleep deprivation can seriously impact your health beyond just making you tired during the day. These are some of the most common consequences of sleep debt.

Increased risk of chronic disease

When you regularly miss out on sleep, you have a higher risk of developing certain diseases, including: 

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Depression

Impaired cognitive function and memory

Being in sleep debt can majorly influence your brain function, affecting your concentration and focus. As a result, you may have trouble paying attention at work or school, which can affect your decision-making skills and performance.

Similarly, a lack of sleep can make it harder to remember what you’ve learned. It can also impair your ability to consolidate memories, which helps you recall them later on.

Negative impact on mood and mental health

There’s a close connection between sleep and mood. If you’ve ever had a poor night’s sleep, you may’ve noticed being angrier, irritable or more impatient the following day. 

Not getting enough sleep can also have longer-term implications for your mental health. In one study, for example, researchers found that people who slept 6 hours or less were more than twice as likely to experience “frequent mental distress.”

Strategies for reducing sleep debt

For most people, it’s nearly impossible to get the correct amount of sleep every night. If you’ve accumulated sleep debt, there are a few strategies to help you recover.

Go to sleep earlier

When you’re consistently sleep-deprived, you’ll need to make long-term changes to get out of sleep debt. A great way to start is by going to sleep earlier each night — even if it’s just by 15 minutes or so.

Take a nap

After a sleepless night, taking a quick power nap could help you feel a bit more rejuvenated — but keep in mind that it isn’t an instant cure for sleep deprivation. Here’s how to get the most out of your midday nap:

  • Limit it to 20 minutes
  • Take it in the early afternoon
  • After you wake up, get out of bed, soak up some natural daylight, and do something energizing (like wash your face or listen to music)

Try a sleep supplement or remedy

These days, there are all kinds of sleep aids and supplements to help you fall and stay asleep. You’re probably already familiar with melatonin, but if you don’t like the groggy feeling that often accompanies it, there are other natural sleep aids to consider, such as GABA. Additional natural remedies include herbal tea, CBD and lavender oil. We would recommend consulting with a healthcare provider before trying new supplements.

Create a bedtime routine

Creating and sticking to a calming bedtime routine is a crucial factor in getting quality rest — especially if anxiety is keeping you up at night. You can tweak the routine to fit your lifestyle, but some things to accomplish before going to sleep include creating the next day’s to-do list and reducing your screen time. Having a nightly routine helps signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wind down and relax.

Speak with your doctor

If you have chronic sleep issues, a medical problem could be to blame. In that case, booking an appointment with your doctor to share your symptoms and discuss treatment options is a good idea.

Tips to get quality sleep

Whether your sleep struggles are occasional or ongoing, these tips can help you achieve better, more restful sleep.

Read more: Can Sleep Banking Help You Catch Up on Rest? What to Know

Create a sleep-positive environment

Along with developing a nightly routine, there are ways to optimize your bedroom for sleep. Creating a sleep-inducing environment can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. This includes setting your room at a comfortable temperature, which, according to the Sleep Foundation, is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Playing relaxing music or white noise sounds, keeping out light and using soothing aromas can also help lull your mind into a calming state of relaxation.

Read more: Create the Ideal Environment for the Best Sleep Ever

Be consistent

By staying consistent with your bedtime and wake-up time, you’ll keep your circadian rhythm on track. In turn, this regulates your internal clock and helps you get higher-quality sleep.

Keep a sleep journal

Hand with Sleep Log or Diary on table.

Iryna Imago/Getty Images

You can also track your sleep habits in a journal, including roughly how long it takes to fall asleep and how often you wake up each night, and bring these records to your doctor to discuss potential problems and solutions.

Diet and exercise

Diet and nutrition affect the quality of your sleep, and certain foods can make it easier (or harder) to get proper rest. The quality of your shut-eye, in turn, also influences the type of food you crave. Getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet is crucial — a lack of key nutrients such as magnesium and calcium is linked to sleep issues. Look for whole foods high in fiber and potassium, which can also help reduce blood pressure.

Frequent exercising can decrease your stress levels, making falling asleep easier. It also helps regulate your circadian rhythm for more consistent and quality sleep. The time of day you work out is important — it’s best to work out earlier, as exercising too close to bedtime can make it harder to sleep due to spiked endorphin levels. Remember that your daily exercise does not have to be super intense — just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can improve your sleep quality.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed

Both caffeine and alcohol can negatively affect your sleep quality, though for different reasons. Caffeine’s energizing effect can last for hours, even after your last cup. On the other hand, drinking alcohol can lead to uncomfortable side effects (like heartburn and acid reflux) and cause you to get less restful sleep.

Yes, is it possible to recover from sleep debt. Remember that recovering from your sleep debt is a gradual process and won’t happen through excessive sleeping in a short period.

The amount of sleep needed varies from person to person. Still, adults who regularly sleep five or fewer hours per night have an increased risk of developing mental and physical health conditions. Long-term sleep deprivation is linked to chronic health conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease — and can even shorten your lifespan.

Nowadays, there are a ton of sleep tracker options that can help you monitor your sleep habits and quality — between smartwatches, rings, wristbands and mattress accessories, the kind to get depends on your needs, preferences and budget. Most of these devices will provide a breakdown of your quantity and quality of sleep each night, as well as heart and breath rates. If you’re trying to pay off an accumulation of sleep debt, tracking your sleep is a great place to start.

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