The Price of Sleep Debt
Let me guess: you're not getting enough rest! How was I able to come to that reckoning, given that I don’t know you personally? It’s a simple extrapolation: the majority of Americans just don't get enough sleep. Statistics speak for themselves: 40% of Americans sleep less than 6 hours a night, which is significantly less than what is needed. Chances are you’re no different, and neither am I.
Coming to that conclusion was easy. But how would YOU know whether or not you're getting enough sleep? Here's one way to do it, according to James Wyatt, Ph.D. -- the director of the SLEEP PROBLEMS Service and Research Middle at Rush.
Start by observing how you feel early or mid-afternoon during a routine, sedentary activity. That’s when you are seated and busy with your thoughts, such as during a meeting or another event where you can afford to turn your attention inward. Perform this exercise on a day where you have not resorted to coffee or any other artificial upper, and see if you are feeling generally alert. If so, then you are likely getting enough sleep. But if instead, you feel sleepy or tired, then you are rest-deprived, and you probably have an accumulated sleep debt.
What is sleep debt?
Each night when you don't get enough sleep, you add to what is called “sleep debt” to your account. As time passes, and as you keep on sleeping significantly less than you should, you build-up a chronic sleep loss; a debt that comes, as it turns out, with a high-interest rate.
How the body copes with sleep loss
To better understand how acute and chronic rest loss impacts a person, Dr. Wyatt, along with other sleep experts at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, collaborated on a study. The results of this study were published in the journal Science Translational Treatments. The research spanned three weeks, exposing healthy young adults to repeated bouts of sleep deprivation, followed by opportunities to sleep for 10 hours at a time. In the end, the experiment measured by reaction timing tests and demonstrated that chronic sleep loss affects a person's performance negatively. While the opposite results would have been surprising, there are conclusions to be drawn from that extensive study.
As with any debt, sleep debt adds up over time - the more sleep the study subjects lost, the more their performance deteriorated with each day and with each additional waking hour. This adverse effect is felt more strongly at night. When study participants with chronic sleep loss attempted to work extended hours into the evening, their reaction time became up to 10 times slower.
Your body can cope - but it won't last
Interestingly, the researchers found that the body can temporarily compensate for sleep loss and even chronic sleep debt during certain parts of the day. The body's internal clock helped people perform well on reaction timing tests during the late afternoon to early evening despite substantial, even acute chronic sleep loss.
In the morning that followed a 10-hour sleep, subjects of the study performed well on the reaction timing tests. That is much like when you awaken after sleeping in on the weekend and come back to work refreshed. "You may be convinced that you have made up for your sleep debt," says Wyatt, "however the longer you are awake, the higher the price you’ll pay." He explains that you may feel this restoration for 4-6 hour period after waking up from extended sleeping, but once that period expires, the lost rest will come back to haunt you.
Zeroing out your rest debt
So let’s assume that you’ve already accumulated a significant amount of sleep debt. How then do you go about getting rid of it? Dr. Wyatt recommends getting rest in any fashion you can: by sleeping in as long as you possibly can in the morning, or by taking 15 to 20-minute naps during the day. Recuperating is important to prevent an acute sleeping debts from turning into a chronic rest. However, there just isn’t enough time during the weekend to make up for the sleep loss that you’ve accumulated throughout the previous week, and possibly longer.
That is why your primary strategy ought to be to get sufficient sleep every night. It's understandable if you want to replace lost sleep once in awhile, but it's best to make this strategy a rare occurrence more than a usual habit.
Tips and strategies
Here are a few pointers to help you progressively slip back into an adequate sleep and rest routine:
Work out a calming bedtime routine. You need to separate sleep time from those other "exciting" activities that are part of your typical day. Establish a sequence of relaxing activities -- including a hot bath, reading, listening to music -- that will create the needed break. Couple those ventures with conscious efforts to avoid arousing activities or environments: bright light, work, and other stressful projects that are better handled when you're in a relaxed mood.
Doctors recommend that you work towards purposely designing your bedroom as a sleep-conducive environment. Indeed, your ideal bedroom should be:
* isolated from interruptions
In the age of ubiquitous mobile devices, the following rule could present quite a challenge to many of us: don't bring your electronic devices to your bedroom. No TV, no computer, no phone or tablet: nothing that is designed to grab your attention should be allowed in the room that you dedicate to sleep. Additionally, make sure that your mattress and your pillows are both relaxing and supportive. Dampen noise and other distractions by using blackout curtains, eye tones or even ear plugs -- in case you live in a noisy area with little isolation from outside sound and light pollution.
Food and sleep don’t mix well. Finish your last meal of the day at least two hours before bedtime. Eating or even drinking close to bedtime will make you less comfortable once you try to rest. Restricting fluids to a couple of hours before bedtime will have the extra benefit of avoiding nighttime visits to the bathroom. Alcohol may feel like a sedative, but it is a sleep disruptor that leads to restlessness. Avoid alcohol before bed.
Exercise regularly. In general, training on a schedule will help you drift into sleep more easily, and make sleep a more restful activity. On the other hand, keep in mind that exercising and training stimulate your heart, mind, and muscles. Thus it is advisable to complete your sessions at least a few hours before bedtime, so to give your body a period to relax.
Coffee and cigarettes. Caffeine from such consumables as espresso, tea, colas and chocolate, typically stay in the body between 3 and 5 hours. You will need to avoid those for the period that precedes your sleep. The same goes for cigarettes. Since nicotine is also a stimulant, it makes sleeping more difficult. If you are a smoker, you're likely to require more time to fall asleep, as well as having a harder time waking up. Nicotine also induces nightmares. If that's the case, then you should probably quit smoking altogether.
These tips will help you achieve proper rest and the enormous benefits that adequate sleep provides. For people who have sleep problems or feel fatigued throughout the day despite obtaining sufficient rest, you should seek advice from your doctor. He or she can help figure out if an underlying medical condition may be affecting your sleep.