Everything You Need to Know About Sleep Debt

There’s no denying that sleep is essential, but busy schedules often mean that you need to stay awake longer to finish tasks. One all-nighter isn’t too bad once in a while, but one too many and you might be at risk without even knowing it.

In fact, a habit of getting too little sleep forces your body and mind to adapt to this cycle. While this looks like a good thing at first, it’s actually not. This can lead to all kinds of health problems, like heart problems and weight gain.

This is what’s known as sleep deprivation, or “sleep debt”, and its costs on physical and mental health can be mounting over time the more time you stay awake and the less time you have for rest.

How to Know if You Have Sleep Debt

If you think you’re not getting enough sleep, try watching out for these signs that you have a significant amount of sleep debt:

  • Caffeine – Keep track of how many cups of coffee you need to take throughout the day to feel functional. The more cups of coffee you drink, the more likely you’ll have trouble sleeping at night.
  • Sugar/high carbohydrate food cravings – Just like the caffeine, sleep deprivation leads to cravings for foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates.
  • Moodiness – It’s hard to focus on anything when you’re fuzzy-headed or irritable, and being prone to mood swings is a big sign that you’re missing out on the sleep you need. This is especially true if you’re constantly feeling groggy during the day, only to still be working until the late hours.

Repaying Your Sleep Debt

Now that you know the signs and effects of being sleep-deprived, here’s what you can do to repay your sleep debt:  

  • Limit your naps – Napping during the day will make it difficult for you to sleep at night, but taking an hour or two in the afternoon to nap can supplement the lost hours of sleep for night shift workers.
  • Avoid taking sleeping pills – Unless your doctor has specifically prescribed sleeping pills due to any underlying medical condition, avoid taking them as much as possible.
  • Sleep earlier than you normally would – Remember what time you would usually go to bed at night and set your normal sleep schedule back by about fifteen minutes.
  • Prevent distractions – Turn off all screens and lights before going to sleep to allow your body to return to its natural circadian rhythm.

Keep in mind that booting your sleep cycle is a process. Sleeping in on one night or over the weekend isn’t going to bring you back to your normal sleeping schedule, but it’s a constant work in progress to improve the quality of your sleep.