You can't always catch up on sleep, experts say — here's the hard truth about sleep debt


Along with student debt and credit card debt, there is another kind of debt plaguing Americans: sleep debt. It refers to the accumulation of hours we don't sleep when our bodies need us to.

Even though adults require between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, according to the Mayo Clinic, one-third of Americans are getting fewer than six hours on average, according to a study published earlier this year looking at government data collected from 2004-2017.

This lack of sleep can seriously affect our productivity. "Why do people sleep?" asks Dr. Camilo Ruiz, medical director at Choice Physicians Sleep Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "For health, to maintain alertness and performance."

Sleep deprivation, for employees, can manifest as an inability to focus and a habit of making mistakes. For employers, it can mean lost profits. Fatigued workers cost companies between $60 billion and $136 billion a year, with overall economic losses estimated at up to $411 billion annually.

And although there is some sleep debt you can pay off, some you can't. Here are two types of sleep deprivation and how to deal with them:

Acute sleep debt

Acute sleep debt means a person gets less or no sleep for a short period of time, maybe one to two days. "It's like a high school or college student who pulls an all-nighter, goes to take a test, and then comes home and passes out all in one day," Dr. Ruiz says.

If you only sleep two hours one night, it's possible to repay your sleep debt by heading to bed five hours early the next day. "The body can actually compensate for that," Ruiz says. Of course, this requires you to have five extra hours, which may only be true of students who don't have jobs and can come home and pass out at 4 p.m.

But even though you can, in some situations, repay acute sleep debt, it still has adverse immediate effects, such as a significant increase in anxiety, according to a 2018 study.

The study, which split young adults into two groups where one group was deprived of sleep for 24 hours and the other allowed to follow their normal sleep schedule, saw that the sleep-deprived group still had 30% more anxiety than they'd had after getting a full night's rest. And scans showed that, in the sleep-deprived brain, your emotions heighten while your ability to make decisions worsens.

Chronic sleep debt

If you have chronic sleep debt, meaning you haven't gotten enough sleep in weeks, the solution is less immediate. "You can't really fix long-term sleep debt," says Dr. Shelby Harris, a clinical physician who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine.

Say you're only getting six hours per night when your body requires eight. Your sleep debt will mount quickly. "It's like a bank," Harris says. "Within a week you've already lost 10 hours. It's really hard to make up 10 hours of sleep on the weekend."

If you continue this pattern for months or even years, you may be plagued indefinitely with lower productivity and higher anxiety.

You can't really fix long-term sleep debt.
Shelby Harris
author of 'The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia'

Even though you can't "repay" certain kinds of sleep debt, you can improve your sleep hygiene, which will result in more and better sleep. Along with giving yourself ample time in bed — "at least seven hours" a night, Ruiz suggests — try these free strategies:

  • Sleep at the same time every day, even on the weekends. If you're not consistent, you won't develop a healthy circadian rhythm.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed. A glass of wine might help you fall asleep, but your body will metabolize it in the middle of the night and could wake you up.
  • Take a hot bath or shower. This will lower your body temperature and create a cooling effect that's conducive to sleep.
  • Keep your room temperature low, at most 68 degrees.
  • Stay away from your phone, laptop, TV, or other bright screens that produce what's known as "junk light." That can trigger your body into being awake the same way daylight can.

"Unfortunately, we're dealing with the old-school mentality that sleep is bad and for the weak, and in reality, all of that tends to catch up with you," Ruiz says. It helps to remember that sleep really is important: The more you sleep, often the more productive you can be.

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