Understanding Sleep Debt and Sleep Deprivation

sleep debtMillions of people in the U.S. suffer from sleep debt or sleep deficit, which is the result of sleep deprivation or insufficient amount of sleep over a period of days, weeks or longer.

Sleep debt happens when the amount of sleep you are actually getting is less than the amount of sleep you should be getting. It’s a deficit that increases every time you short-change yourself from obtaining those essential minutes of nightly slumber.

It makes no difference if you are sleep deprived through personal choice or if you suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia or circadian rhythm sleep disorder. Failing to get the right amount of sleep results in sleep debt.

In advanced cases, a sleep deficit can cause physical and mental health problems.

Is Sleep Deprivation Serious?

Studies show that severe sleep deprivation can lead to:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of performance ability

A recent study at the University of Chicago restricted a group of healthy young men to only 4 hours of sleep for six nights in a row. Afterwards, their blood tests showed results that nearly match individuals who have diabetes.

A tremendous drop in insulin due to a reduced ability to process blood sugar, elevated levels of cortisol. High levels of this stress hormone can lead to hypertension and impaired memory.

The research leader, Dr. Eve Van Cauter reported that habitual short sleepers have difficulty maintaining stable blood sugar levels, which makes them susceptible to obesity and diabetes. Experts are starting to speculate that sleep deprivation could be a leading cause of the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Van Cauter said that getting the proper amount of sleep is not only vital for physical health, but also for performance levels and emotional well-being.

What If Sleep Deprivation Is Unavoidable?

For many people sleep deprivation is something that they have to deal with on a fairly regular basis, such as those that have to work odd shifts, or students preparing for exams.

In situations such as these, making up for that lost sleep will take more than merely getting a couple nights of good sleep. First of all, it has been determined that you cannot easily recoup lost slumber unless the sleep you have missed out on is recent.

This means that if you have been going without the right amount of shut-eye for a few months or even longer, you can’t settle that debt by just getting a couple nights of good sleep.

On the other hand, if the sleep deprivation spans only a short period of time, it is possible to regain that rest fairly quickly.

What Can Be Done?

The effects of sleep debt can be hidden, albeit only on a temporary basis, in order to allow for performance to be restored.

There is a catch, though. While a good night’s sleep might remedy the effects of the lack of sleep for a limited time, the person will likely experience a worsening in their performance ability the longer they remain awake thereafter.

They might also experience a range of other fatigue-related problems, like diminished memory, reduced vision and impaired driving.

So, although you may think you can compensate for your sleep deprivation over the weekends, the fact of the matter is that all you are really doing is accumulating your sleep deficit over and over.

There is good news, however. With conscious effort and discipline, sleep debt can be repaid— just don’t expect it to happen in one extended snooze session.

Adding an additional hour or two of sleep a night is a good way to get back on track. For people who have been chronically sleep deprived, it may take a number of months to return to a normal sleep pattern.

So, make the time to erase that sleep debt and you’ll find it’s the best investment you’ve ever made.




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