Do you have a sleep debt?

A woman sits in a dark bedroom with her eyes closed.

Nov. 9. 2020—We can't live without sleep—any more than we can without food or water—but when we're stressed, it's often the first thing to go.

Experts say adults should get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. If you're sleeping less than you should, you can build up a sleep debt. Even if you sleep six hours each night, you'll accumulate a sleep debt of about 7 to 14 hours after only one week.

How to know you're in debt

A sleep debt can leave you feeling very tired during the day. You might feel like you could doze off while:

  • Reading or watching TV.
  • Sitting still in a meeting or classroom.
  • Riding in a car or sitting in traffic.
  • Sitting and talking to someone.
  • Sitting quietly after a meal.

You might also have trouble learning and focusing. And you may have a hard time making decisions, solving problems, remembering things or controlling your emotions.

A sleep debt can even show up on your face as:

  • Drooping, red or swollen eyes.
  • Dark circles under the eyes.
  • Pale skin.
  • Wrinkles or lines.
  • Drooping corners of the mouth.

How do you pay off a sleep debt?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), naps can give you a short-term boost. But they can't take the place of a full night's sleep.

You might try sleeping extra hours on the weekend. That might help you feel better, notes the NHLBI. But it can also throw off your sleep-wake cycle. And research suggests that weekend recovery sleep doesn't repair the damage that sleep debt can do to your physical health, like an increased risk for obesity or diabetes.

The best way to resolve your sleep debt is to make sure you're making time for a good night's sleep every night. That means going to bed at an early enough time to get the rest you need.

You can also practice good sleep habits, such as:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends.
  • Setting the stage for sleep every night. Don't use your computer, smartphone or TV an hour before going to bed. Try taking a warm bath and reading instead.
  • Avoiding large meals and alcohol close to bedtime.
  • Avoiding nicotine and caffeine, which can interfere with sleep.
  • Being physically active every day (but not in the hour before bedtime).
  • Keeping your bedroom cool, quiet and dark.

Dear diary…

If those steps don't help, you might want to try keeping a sleep diary for several weeks. Keep track of how much sleep you get, how you feel in the morning and how sleepy you feel during the day. Be sure to record how often you wake up during the night and how long it takes to get back to sleep. Then share the results with your doctor. It's possible you might have a treatable sleep disorder, such as insomnia.

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