Can sleep debt be repaid?
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
If you have been reading about sleep, you will undoubtedly have heard about sleep debt, also called sleep deficit. Basically, a sleep debt occurs when you do not get enough sleep at night. Imagine that you need 7 hours of sleep to function well, and one evening you only sleep for about 5 hours. Instead of breaking even at 7 hours, you go into sleep debt by 2 hours. If the next evening, you only sleep for 5 hours instead of the usual 7 that you personally need, then you would be adding another 2 hours to the previous day's sleep debt. Your debt has now increased to 4 hours. If this sleep debt accrues over the rest of the workweek, your sleep debt would work out to be 10 hours in total.
In such cases, you will often hear people say that they will make up for the lost sleep over the weekend.
The question is, though, whether you can actually make up for lost sleep.
Recent research has revealed that, unfortunately, this is not the case. You may feel less tired, but the effect of sleep debt on your body remains. In fact, you may actually be doing more harm to your metabolism when you try to recover over the weekend. Here's a link to the study: https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30098-3
Now, if it's only a few nights of sleep that are lost over the course of your lifetime, then this loss of sleep is likely not to have as serious an effect. However, some would continue to argue that you still can't make up for the opportunity cost of even one night's lost sleep because of the impact, the following day, on your performance, memory, and short-term health.
A chronic pattern of sleep deprivation, on the other hand, with its accompanying sleep debt cannot be repaid. Its impact on your health is serious. The longer you remain sleep deprived, the greater the health concern because poor sleep is related to illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, cancer.... the list goes on. The effects on mental health, such as depression and burnout, are similarly serious. We haven't even touched upon the aforementioned impact on performance, such as poor learning or an increase in fatigue-related accidents.
Still, just because sleep debt cannot be repaid doesn't mean that you can't do anything about it.
Take action, now, to limit the effects of sleep deprivation.
Just like becoming fit or eating well, sleeping well involves a lifestyle change. You can learn more about how to improve sleep. You can learn about your chronotype. Start learning about sleep hygiene. Learn about lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to obtain the requisite hours of sleep that you need.
Most importantly, though, you need to do this one thing: recognize that better sleep begins with a change in attitude towards sleep. Sleep is not a luxury; rather, it is a basic need.
To me, a recognition of this very fact is the first step in moving towards sleep wellness and better health. If we keep treating sleep as something that can be repaid, we won't take it seriously. With the effects of sleep debt on health, people need an attitude shift regarding sleep; otherwise, its effects on their health and lives will be quite serious indeed.