What is Sleep Debt? Can You Catch up on it?

And you thought financial debt was the biggest of your worries? Turns out, every time we starve our body of the healthy night’s sleep it needs we’re wracking up another kind of debt. Sleep debt is a very real problem that almost everyone faces at some point in their life, and it can have a hugely negative effect on your ability to function at your best.

The good news is that sleep debt isn’t irreversible, and you can take steps to minimize the effect it has on your body and waking life. Let’s take a look at what sleep debt is, how it negatively impacts us and what we can do to slash sleep debt once and for all.

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt, also called sleep deficit, is the accumulated gap between how much you should be sleeping and how much sleep you’re actually getting. Since sleep is how we get much of our energy, you can think of it as “paying” your body back for the energy it “spends” during the day. If you have a particularly taxing day, you might need to pay your body a little bit of extra sleep to make up for it. When you’re spending more energy than you earn at night, you’re causing yourself to get into sleep debt.

If you plan on getting eight hours of sleep, for instance, but work keeps you up late and you only get five, you have three hours of sleep debt. This can also be a cumulation of shorter deficits over a long period of time — for instance, twenty minutes less sleep than you need each night for several weeks or several months can have a long-term impact on your overall health.

What does sleep debt do to your body?

So maybe sleep isn’t paying the bills in quite the same way as your regular income, but it can definitely create real problems in your health as well as your creative and professional life. Let’s explore some of the issues that come from poorly managed sleep debt.

Mood and creativity suffers

It’s no secret that tired people are usually pretty grumpy. Poor sleep has an adverse effect on the way we see ourselves and the world, and it makes it more difficult for us to come up with new ideas. You’ll find your perspective becoming more negative and one-dimensional compared to if you take on new projects after a good night’s sleep.

Impact your immune system

What a lot of people don’t know is that not getting enough sleep can actually lower our body’s ability to defend itself against sickness and infection. When you build up a sleep debt, you’ll find your energy levels are lower, you’re more at risk for illnesses floating around the air, and you’re more likely to have accidents at work or while driving.

Lowers productivity

When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain starts to lose the ability to process information. It also inhibits our motor functions and makes it more difficult to successfully optimize any kind of work environment. You’ll find yourself working through tasks slower, making more mistakes, and seeing poorer results than you would if you’d gotten enough sleep.

Exacerbates anxiety and depression

Not only does being overtired put you in a bad mood, it actually stimulates a higher production of cortisol, or the “stress hormone”. Sleep debt is shown to both cause and amplify depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. In fact, it’s been proven that nearly everyone who’s diagnosed with clinical depression also suffers from sleep debt. [link here to “sleep and depression” article!]

Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease

Lastly, sleep debt can have deeper, more long-term effects on our bodies. Poor sleep actually inhibits our ability to regulate the amount of glucose in our blood; if left unchecked, this can lead to diabetes. Poor sleep can also weaken our hearts considerably and put us at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

How can you avoid sleep debt?

As you can see, sleep debt is a serious problem with some serious consequences. The best way to conquer sleep debt once and for all is to avoid racking it up in the first place; or, if you miss out on some sleep, making up for it as quickly as you can. Leaving sleep debt to accumulate more and more over time puts you at a higher risk of these long-term problems, and those are much harder to reverse.

Let’s look at some of the ways to avoid sleep debt and keep your body functioning at its best.

Indulge in some cat naps

If you know that you’re going to need to stay up late working or visiting with friends, see if you can sneak in some short naps during your downtime. They won’t excuse you from needing a good night’s sleep, but they will give your body some extra energy. Then, if you miss out on some sleep that night, try to recuperate with another short nap the next day. By putting in little “deposits” when you can, you can minimize the effects of poor sleep in the short term.

Keep a regular sleep schedule

Wherever possible, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day — even on weekends. When you're staying up late one night and going to bed early another, waking with a shrill alarm one morning and sleeping in until noon the next, your body is going to have a harder time maintaining its rhythm and you’re more likely to build up your sleep debt. If you can keep your body on a regular schedule of sleeping and waking at the same time, you’ll be able to dodge sleep debt before it starts.

Avoid sleep-inhibiting substances at night

This includes things like caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol as well as electronic devices such as phones and tablets — both for their bright blue light and for the doomscrolling content that keeps so many of us awake at night. All of these things negatively impact your body’s ability to fall asleep, either biologically or mentally (or both). Try to limit intake of caffeine and other substances to at least six hours before you get ready to go to bed, and electronic devices at least one full hour. Instead, use the last hour before you sleep to relax and practice some self-care love that will put you into a healthier, more restful sleep.

Be kind to your body (and your mind)

It’s impossible to avoid worries in this day and age, but you’ll sleep a lot better if you take care of yourself and give yourself a safe, welcoming place to fall asleep. Try to create a sacred area in your bedroom that you’ll love falling asleep in — whether that’s with comfortable bedding, beautiful artwork, music, or smells. Look for ways to practice an indulgent bedtime routine that will make you feel relaxed, such as taking a warm bath or reading in bed before sleep. By making sleep a time of safety and warmth, rather than swirling anxieties, you’ll be able to snuggle into a healthier and longer night’s sleep.

How to repay sleep debt once you have it

Taking naps when you can spare a few minutes is a good way to repay some of the sleep debt you’ve accumulated, but the only real way to fight sleep debt for good is by making changes to your lifestyle. This is especially true if you’re compounding your sleep debt little by little each night because you’re up late working, studying, or worrying. These issues are going to be causing you problems for the long haul if you don’t put new practices into action to combat them.

Try and pinpoint exactly what is causing your sleep debt. Are you staying up late every night finishing your assignments? Look for other ways you can get them done earlier in the day. Is your sleep suffering because you wake often during the night? Look into taking sleep aids or talking with a doctor about how to get a better night's sleep. Maybe you’re having a hard time falling asleep at night because you have too many worries swirling around your head. If this is the case, try writing them down in a journal so you can set them aside until the next day.

Keep our tips for how to avoid sleep debt in mind, too. If you can make an overall shift to the way you approach your sleep, you’ll find your sleep debt growing smaller and smaller and your days growing brighter and healthier.

Avoid sleep debt by playing the long game

Sleep debt isn’t fun for anybody, especially when it starts interfering with your social, professional, and creative life. The only good thing about sleep debt is that it can force you to take a hard look at what in your life is causing it, and what areas of your life aren’t getting enough attention. With these steps in mind, you can get rid of sleep debt once and for all and wake up happier and more rested, too.