What is sleep debt?

In order to get over sleep debt, it is a good idea to first understand what it means. Sleep debt refers to how much shut eye you ‘owe’ your body if you’ve been sleeping too little. Sleep dept can be acute or chronic, the later leading to fatigue, which can impact on daily life, including work performance, health and your mood.   

Everyday life tends to be busy and often consists of a balancing act, whether that’s work or studying, juggling family commitments, exercise or making time for social activities or friends. It is easy to make sleep your last priority and just try to struggle through the day.   

Over time, this lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your physical and mental state, without you even realising it.    

If you deprive yourself by skipping an hour of sleep a night, over a period of seven days, you will be almost one full night behind.  

How much sleep do we need?

Everyone is different, and people require varying amounts of sleep. Often life situations dictate how much sleep you might get. Your night may be cut short if you have young children who are awake a lot during the night, if you have a job that requires you to work shifts or if you are suffering from stress or anxiety.    

Adults require an average 8 hours of sleep per night. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 60% of women regularly fall short of the required 7-9 hours’ sleep per night.   

Can you catch up on lost sleep?

Sleep expert, Elina Winnel says you can only catch up on any lost sleep to a very limited extent.   

“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 in one block,” she says.  

How does sleep debt work?

Sleep debt can be temporary due to burning the candle at both ends or due to a particularly stressful period you may be going through. The good news is that following a single night without any sleep, you’ll only need to bank an extra two to three hours than normal to return most functions and your mood to normal.   

While short-term sleep loss can be made up relatively quickly, this is not the case with longer-term deprivation.  

What does this mean? Forget skimping on sleep during the week with a plan of making it up on the weekend. 

“Sure, you’ll feel more rested, but your sympathetic nervous system is still being overworked for five out of seven days, not dissimilar to eating junk food during the week and expecting a healthy diet on the weekend to make up for the other five days,” Elina says.  

The challenge with a lack of shut eye, is the more exhausted you are, the less likely you are to recognise the symptoms yourself or be able to think clearly.   Sleep is our healing time, when the cells in our body repair, hormones are balanced and our brain is effectively ‘cleaned out’.  If we cut this time short, we reduce our rejuvenation time.  As a result, our stress hormones rise and our aging process speeds up.   

‘Sleep debt’ doesn’t work like a bank account, where you can withdraw money and later put it back.  Once it is gone, it is gone  – and the healing and rejuvenation is lost, the ageing has occurred.   

“All we can do is return our bodies and brains to their new level of homeostasis, at a more aged level. Our critical functions are restored, but the ‘wear and tear’ hasn’t been repaired like it would have with adequate sleep,” Elina says.   

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep is essential for good health and general well-being throughout your life. Getting enough good quality sleep, at the right times supports your mental and physical health, along with improving your quality of life.

Sleep is not a fixed state - while you sleep your brain is quite active and moves through a series of stages which aid in refreshing the mind, and repairing the body.

Here’s what happens while you are sleeping:
  • Brain

    When you’re asleep your brain is entering information it has learned through the day into your memory, and forming new pathways to help you learn and remember. This is also the time that it re-establishes communication between different parts of the brain
  • Body

    When you’re sleeping, your body grows, repairs and heals its tissues, including your heart and blood vessels
  • Hormones

    Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of hormones – including those that control appetite, blood sugar levels, growth & development
  • Immune system

    Sleep regulates the function of your immune system

Are you suffering from sleep deprivation?

The average adults needs around 8 hours of good quality sleep per night. A lack of sleep can lead to: 
  • Poor concentration and mood changes
  • Trouble making decisions, solving problems, & remembering things
  • Reduced awareness of the environment and situation
  • Difficulties coping with change, and controlling emotions and behaviour
  • Reduced work efficiency, and loss of motivation
  • Weight gain
  • Raised blood pressure
If you struggle with poor sleep for over a month, Elina says it is a good idea to seek help. Your GP is a good starting place.   

They will be able to identify if there are any underlying problems that may be affecting your ability to have a restful night. By identifying the cause, your doctor will be able to recommend the right course of treatment.  

How can I get a good night's sleep? - Ask a naturopath

How to keep good sleep hygiene habits

Make sure you are practicing good sleep hygiene habits, avoiding stimulants like exercise, tea and coffee before bedtime. Exercise can be helpful towards a good night’s rest but plan it earlier in the day so your body and mind has time to wind down later in the evening. 

Keep your bedroom a den of zen and only for sleep and sex, and if you have stress in your life, take steps to reduce it. If you find yourself lying awake and restless in the middle of the night for more than 30 minutes, it can help to get up and sit peacefully in another room until you feel ready to fall asleep again.  

While you can certainly return your night-time patterns to normal by yourself, a period of shortened sleep can make this challenging for some. For example, new mums often struggle to stop waking up during the night after their babies have started to sleep through.  

If the lack of sleep is an ongoing issue and you may need extra support, talk to your healthcare professional about suitable solutions to reset your body clock and get back on track.  

Do you want to turn around the effects of not enough rest and rejuvenate your body and mind? Try our 4 step sleep action plan and work your way towards getting more zzz’s!