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The Truth About Sleep Debt

Feeling sleepy? You’re not alone. Sleep Debt is actually a national issue with 45% of Aussies reporting that they have poor sleep patterns.

We’re a country of the sleep deprived, and our sleep debt has been increasing over the years.

What is Sleep Debt?

Sleep Debt is the term used to describe cumulative sleep loss. There are two main determiners of sleep: your circadian rhythm which is your body clock, and homeostatic sleep drive. Pretty much, the longer you are sleep deprived, the sleepier you get so the larger the sleep debt.

It can be calculated by the amount of hours you need to feel well rested minus the hours you actually slept. So since the recommended amount of sleep is 9 hours, and you only sleep 6 hours, you have 3 hours of sleep debt that day. That’s 1068 lost hours of sleep a year.

What are the signs you are sleep deprived?

The short term effects of having sleep debt are yawning, moody, feel fatigue, irritable, depressed, have difficulty learning new concepts, forgetful, lightheaded, lacking in motivation, clumsy, increase in appetite, and/or have a reduced sex drive.

Meanwhile the long term effects include weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.

In a University of Chicago study where participants only sleep 4 hours for 6 consecutive days, all developed higher blood pressure, higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), produced only half the usual number of antibodies, and displayed signs of insulin resistance. These changes were then reversed when they caught up their sleep debt.

“But I feel fine”

The reality is that we may think we’re getting enough sleep as we stop displaying the short term symptoms after a sleep in, but that doesn’t mean we are getting the needed restorative effects from sleep. As Hans P.A. Van Dongen, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Penn’s Department of Psychiatry stated routine nightly sleep for fewer than six hours results in cognitive performance deficits, even if we feel we have adapted to it”.

Our bad sleep routines have resulted in 29% of Aussies driving while sleepy once a month, 20% even dozing off while driving, and even 5% having an accident due to falling asleep. Lack of sleep has also affected our work with 21% of men, and 13% of women falling asleep at work, and 19% say sleepiness interferes with even performing daily activities.

Can you repay sleep debt?

Technically, no. Once you’ve missed sleep, it’s gone for good. However when you are sleep deprived, and finally get some shut eye, your body spends more time in the deep, restorative stages of sleep. Elina Winnel, Sleep Expert, said “Statistics indicate that we can ‘catch up’ on about 20 hours of missed sleep.  We can also only catch up on this debt in one to two hour increments at a time – not it in one block”.

The only way on to reduce your sleep debt is to just to commit to having a healthier sleep pattern, and do the improvements in increments to not mess with your circadian rhythm.


So what can you do to reduce your sleep debt today?

Have a set bed time

By having a set bed time, and a set time you will wake up, you commit yourself to getting the required amount of sleep your body needs. The key is to sleep earlier instead of sleeping in later. This way you don’t lose time in your day that you need to do things so you don’t go back into the cycle of having to sleep later to finish the things you needed to do that day! But don’t go doing it straight away. Start by sleeping earlier 15 minutes each night until you get to your desired bed time.

Put down the coffee earlier

Last time you should consume coffee is 2pm, and limit yourself to 4 cups per day in order to get restorative sleep. Even consuming coffee 6 hours before bed resulted in less restorative sleep! Caffeine keeps us awake as it blocks the adenosine receptors in our brain. Normally “adenosine is released into the bloodstream and taken up by receptors in the brain region that governs wakefulness (the basal forebrain). There, it acts like a dimmer switch, turning down many of the processes associated with wakefulness, such as attention, memory, and reactions to physical stimuli. As brain levels of adenosine mount, we feel drowsier.”

Stop using your electronics before bed

Power down the electronics an hour before bedtime. Why? Because using technology interferes with your circadian rhythm, otherwise known as your body clock by suppressing the release of melatonin, which is a hormone that induces sleep. The more technology you use before bedtime, the harder it is for you to fall asleep. Even if you dim the brightness of the screens, you’re still stimulating your brain.

Instead of scrolling through your social media feeds, or binging on Netflix, why not read a book, or share a moment with a loved one

Have an afternoon nap

Isn’t it funny we thought naps were a punishment as a kid, and now we can’t wait to nap as adults? Well, a 20 minute power nap around 2-4pm is great at energising you, and waving off that afternoon sleepiness.

Bernice Averion is a Growth Marketer, Influencer Marketing Specialist, and lifestyle blogger. | Instagram @bunnybernice | Blog

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