Sunday, September 24, 2023

Dangers of Sleep Debt and How To Recover From It?

Sleeping less than seven hours over multiple days accumulates into sleep debt, which is dangerous.

Do you work long hours during the weekdays and hope to catch up with your sleep over the weekend? It is as if you borrow sleep hours during weekdays and pay them back during the weekend. Does that work? Let us discuss that in this article.

You need seven to eight hours of sleep a day. But with busy schedules, deadlines, and plane travels you may be shortchanging your sleep. This can cause a sleep debt.

Sleep Debt

If you sleep less than seven hours for multiple consecutive nights, the deficit—called Sleep Debt—builds up.

As an example, if you sleep two hours less on Monday, one hour less on Tuesday, and another three hours less on Wednesday, you go into your Thursday with six hours of sleep debt.

Bad Effects of Sleep Debt

With sleep debt, your mental functioning and physical alertness drop. You may have:

  • Grogginess and fatigue;
  • Headache and irritability;
  • Confusion and trouble thinking and remembering;
  • Daytime sleepiness; and
  • Reduced reaction time and tendency to make mistakes.

As sleep debt worsens, symptoms start resembling those of alcohol drunkenness (that says something about drinking!):

  • Shaking hands;
  • Reckless or impulsive behaviour;
  • Speech impediment;
  • Hallucinations;
  • Drooping eyelids and the inability of eyes to focus; and
  • Few seconds of sleep episodes before waking up again—called Microsleep.

I have heard of people who take pride in foregoing sleep on a regular basis.

Regrettably, my first preventive health article was on ‘death due to regular lack of sleep’, when a fellow marathon runner died very young in October 2009, sending the Indian road running community shaken. But the tragedy had nothing to do with running; it was caused because the individual used to sleep only four to five hours a day due to work pressures. Make sure your deadlines don’t leave you dead.

If you accumulate sleep debt frequently, you put yourself at an increased risk of:

  • Low immunity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Memory loss

How To Recover From Sleep Debt

  • Drinking coffee or other stimulants cannot reduce sleep debt—it can only be postponed temporarily by such ‘pick-me-up’ drinks.
  • Using willpower is not a safe strategy to keep sleep away.
  • Sleeping adequately is the only way to recover from sleep debt. However, sleep debt is not paid back exactly hour to hour:
    • The good news is that if you have accumulated ten hours of sleep debt, you don’t need to sleep for ten extra hours over the weekend. You will be sleeping very soundly and would need fewer hours to compensate.
    • The bad news is that many recovery processes take place during sleep every night. When you sleep for a long stretch over a weekend, you don’t fully recover from those missed repairs. A clinical trial showed that if you sleep only five hours during weekdays, and sleep long hours over the weekend hoping to compensate, you will still suffer from the harmful effects of sleep deprivation, such as weight gain and increased insulin resistance.
  • Instead of sleeping long hours on one day to compensate, sleep a couple of hours earlier for a few days. That is a better way to recover from sleep debt.
  • Do not rely on daytime naps to cover sleep debt. They don’t help your body recover that well.

The ideal way is to avoid getting into sleep debt in the first place.

How To Avoid Sleep Debt

Set a Routine—sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Try to stick to the same routine even on the weekend. Of course, once in a while, it is okay to let your guard down but don’t make it every weekend’s feature.

Two Hours Before Bedtime

Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or a meal. People who have acidity (heartburn) should avoid them at least four hours before.

One Hour Before Bedtime

Avoid electronic devices, especially blue screens like mobiles, television, and computers (easier said than done!)

Switch on incandescent or orange lights, instead of fluorescent or white lights. I have two sets of lights in my entire house: Bright white lights till one hour before sleep time and low-power orange lights for the last hour before sleep.

At Sleeptime

Turn the room temperature down. I prefer 24°C (or 75°F) though scientists claim 18°C (or 65°F) is better. Too cold for me!

When To Seek Medical Help

If you know the reasons behind your sleep debt (travel, stress, shift work, or project deadlines), work on controlling them. However, if you show symptoms of sleep deprivation for no apparent reason, it is time to seek medical help. Your problem could be due to conditions such as sleep apnoea, insomnia, infections, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and certain medicines; ignoring them could lead to life-threatening issues.

To Read More

First Published on: 16th June 2023
Image Credit: DCStudio on Freepik



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