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Top Pitfalls of Sleep Debt and How to Avoid Them

Top Pitfalls of Sleep Debt and How to Avoid Them

Getting enough sleep is one of the best things a person can do to remain physically and mentally healthy. In this sleep-deprived society, many people accumulate a "sleep debt" that keeps them from feeling and functioning their best. There are a couple common pitfalls people face when catching up on sleep.

What is Sleep Debt?

The average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep each night for optimum health. More than half the population falls short on sleep, according to Harvard Medical School. Over time, these sleep shortages add up to create "sleep debt." An easy way to think of it is to compare "sleep debt" to financial debt, if someone overspends by $20 each day, that person accumulates a more significant debt after weeks or months, The good news is that sleep debt is not exactly like credit card debt, it doesn't accumulate interest and doesn't require an exact payoff in sleep hours. While awake and active, a chemical called adenosine accumulates in the body. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the regulation of sleep, according to Livestrong. During sleep, Adenosine breaks down and is released. People who build up too much Adenosine feel dozy and experience slowed reaction time. The good news is that people can catch up on sleep debt. But first, it is important to understand why sleep is so important.

Why People Need Sleep

During sleep, the body heals and restores itself. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), quality sleep is essential for mental health and performance as well as physical healing. Every aspect of health is tied to sleep including maintaining healthy body weight.

Problems Caused By Sleep Debt

  • Lack of Sleep May Make People More Accident Prone: Thousands of accidents happen each year due to lack of sleep and driving while sleep deprived is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.
  • Mental Performance May Suffer When Sleep Deprived: As mentioned, accumulated adenosine causes people to feel groggy and drowsy.
  • People Who Get Less Sleep Tend to Weigh More: People who sleep 7 - 9 hours a night tend to be more likely to maintain a healthy body weight, according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Serious Health Issues: Since healing and restoration primarily happen during sleep, lack of sleep leads to chronic and serious health problems over time.

Understanding the importance of sleep and sleep debt empowers people to catch up on sleep. There are a few common pitfalls many people fall into when catching up on sleep.

Does Catching Up on Sleep Work?

People can catch up on sleep by repaying sleep debt. The following section describes some of the most common pitfalls and some practical solutions that help pay off sleep debt and establish good sleep habits.

Common Pitfalls to Paying Down Sleep Debt & Solutions

Trying to Catch Up By Sleeping In on Weekends

The most common pitfall is to attempt to catch up on sleep over the weekend. For example, someone may get an average of five hours of sleep a night during the week, then stay up even later on Friday night to get four hours of sleep. That person may then sleep in on Saturday and Sunday to catch up. The problem is this strategy is that it also disrupts circadian rhythms. A Better Solution: For sleep debt, a slow and steady catch-up approach works better in the long-run. Instead of catching up on Sunday, try the following tips:
  • Go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night while catching up. This extra sleep adds up over time and may even help establish good sleep hygiene.
  • Snooze an extra 15 minutes if possible for a little extra catch-up time.
  • Those with flexible schedules may benefit from a 15-minute power nap in the afternoon.

Ignoring the Debt and Hoping It Goes Away

Many people persist with their sleep-deprived lifestyle with the hope that their drowsiness goes away. They use caffeine or stimulants to stay alert. Remember the reasons humans need sleep? This strategy leads to burnout and unnecessary health problems. A Better Solution: Acknowledge the importance of sleep and prioritize it. Also, develop habits that promote good sleep hygiene. Some examples include:
  • Turn the bedroom into a sleep retreat center by choosing a comfortable bed and creating a calming environment.
  • Get enough exercise each day as an active lifestyle promotes sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening.
  • Consider choosing a relaxing activity before bed such as reading, a warm bath, or other relaxing activity.

Once a person prioritizes sleep, it is easier to catch up on sleep debt and to enjoy the healthy lifestyle of the well-rested.

Updated: 09/13/2019

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