[su_dropcap style=”default” size=”3″ class=””]H[/su_dropcap]ealth headlines this month have revealed a concerning trend among North Americans: We are not getting enough sleep—and our health is suffering dramatically from it. Many experts agree that eight hours is the optimal amount of sleep for adolescents and adults; however, a recent study released by National Geographic found that nearly half of Americans surveyed only sleep 6 to 7 hours per night. As that consistently missed hour or two adds up, our bodies begin to experience “sleep debt,” a form of sleep deprivation in which the lack of sleep is consistent over a long period of time. If not “paid off” or “made up,” sleep debt can lead to debilitating mental and physical health issues that can severely hinder our day-to-day activities.
What causes sleep debt?
Sleep debt and sleep deprivation can be a symptom of sleep health issues such as insomnia, in which a person has a problem falling and staying asleep. A 2002 study by the National Sleep Foundation found that 58% of Americans reported having one or more symptoms of insomnia. However, the disorder rarely receives adequate treatment, leading to a large number of individuals suffering from sleep debt.
Lifestyle culprits often cause sleep debt in young adults. All-night study sessions or nights on the town add up when the wakeup time remains the same. In addition, those finding themselves having sleep deprivation issues should be wary of nightcaps and alcohol consumption, because of its sedative-like effects, often causing the drinker to wake up intermittently or have a disturbed sleep.
Prescribed and over-the-counter medications can also compound sleep debt. For example, according to AARP, prescribed medication may contain substances that maintain a body “high” or prevent restfulness. Vitamins such as B6 and B12 can also limit full sleep. Even medical conditions like chronic pain, acid reflux, and pregnancy are often the cause of sleep deprivation.
What are the long-term health effects of sleep debt?
The effects of sleep debt are alarming, especially when it comes to overall health. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota reports that those who are unable to get adequate amounts of sleep have compromised immune systems that are unable to defend the body from common infections or diseases like colds and flus, as well as higher or more extreme cases of lung disease.
Harvard Medical School also reports that sleep debt can lead to obesity: the body produces an increased level of the stress and fat-building hormone, cortisol, while also lowering the level of appetite-suppressing hormones such as leptin. An increase in weight coupled with sleep debt can lead to hypertension (elevated blood pressure), strokes, and heart attacks.
The brain also responds negatively to an increasing amount of sleep debt as sleep is the brain’s main way to rest, release hormones, and repair cell damage. A sleepy brain is at risk for diminished cognitive function, leading to accidents, injuries, and impaired judgment, similar to alcohol use. Short- and long-term memory can be affected too; in fact, a recent study by Temple University found that sleep debt may increase the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease.
More importantly, sleep debt can have a major effect on mental wellness. Sleep debt has been shown by Harvard University Medical School to cause or be a major symptom of depression, and it may lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Those prone to psychiatric conditions who also suffer from sleep deprivation are also more likely to experience heightened symptoms such as hallucinations, anxiety attacks, or manic episodes.
How can you “repay” sleep debt?
Fighting back against sleep debt begins in the bedroom. Developing good bedtime habits such as limiting caffeine, creating a distraction-free sleep space, consistent bed and wake times, and even keeping the temperature on the cooler side can all greatly impact the body’s ability to fall and remain asleep throughout the night. Exercise, alcohol, and medication should also be timed where their effects do not interfere with sleep.
But when consistent sleep is not possible, the body is still able to make up sleep debt by adjusting the schedule. Harvard University’s Women’s Health Watch suggests adding 3-4 hours of sleep on a weekend or off day for every 10 hours missed per week. Sleep vacations, in which the body is allowed to naturally wake up without a schedule or an alarm, can also combat long-term sleep loss. The sleep vacation works by allowing the body to make up sleep debt all while establishing a natural wake-up and sleep rhythm. Experts caution that a repeated plan of sleep debt followed by sleep vacation is not recommended in lieu of a consistent sleep schedule.
Repaying your sleep debt is like paying down any debt: the sooner you pay it down, the sooner you will achieve greater balance. Of course, it’s best to keep your sleep debt to a minimum, because, just like interest, sleep debt compounds, which can cause bigger problems down the road. Still, if you find yourself weighed down by sleep debt, pay it off by taking some extra time on weekends or days off. Your body and mind will certainly thank you.