Sleep Debt. How it works

Is your daily life in a state of exhaustion? Do you go through the daily grind feeling tired, gloomy, and apathetic? Never quite up to par, and longing for that extra energy you can't quite find? 

So many people think the continuous state of exhaustion is normal. That it is a status quo to be accepted. It's chalked up to busy work schedules, demands, and not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. Some people have gotten so used to walking around in a daze, they don't even notice it anymore.

The truth is that you may be suffering from, sleep debt.
It most likely also means that you're not functioning at an optimal level, and may not be feeling happiness, and well-being.

Did you know (Dement, 1999, p. 3-4, 231):
  • Half of us mismanage our sleep to the point where it negatively affects our health and safety. 
  • American Cancer Society studies show a significant association between sleep and longevity
  • On average, each of us sleeps one and a half fewer hours each night than our great-grandparents did a century ago.
  • If someone you know has had a heart attack (especially at a young age), there is a good chance that an undiagnosed sleep disorder contributed to the problem.
  • When people sleep only four hours a night for two weeks, their performance scores are the same as those who were kept up for three straight days and nights (University of Pennsylvania research) 

The bottom line on sleep debt

Look at your sleep as a bank account, whereby accumulated lost sleep is like a monetary debt. Accumulated debt may have crept up in small increments over several days/months/years, and although you may pay it back in small amounts, there still may be a large underlying debt to pay. The small paybacks can help to feel a lot better, but the truth is that in the end, it must be paid back in full.

The brain is quite amazing. It actually keeps an accurate accounting record of how much sleep we owe. It strives to maintain a homeostatic balance between sleep and wakefulness. Just like hunger, the feeling of tiredness and needing sleep is a basic drive in us.

Stanford researcher, William C. Dement M.D., informs us that, "In a very real sense all wakefulness is sleep deprivation. As soon as you wake up, the meter starts ticking, calculating how many hours of sleep you will need to pay off that night" (1999, p.57). 

 Although some people may need a little more or less, there is scientific agreement that most need to sleep one hour for every two hours awake. In general, an average of eight hours a night.

The brain tries to hit this mark and level out at a sleep debt of zero since the debt cannot be lower than zero, and sleep is something that cannot be saved up for a rainy day. It tries to hit the mark by making us feel sleepy as a signal to slide into temporary hibernation. 

At the opposite end of the scale, we know that most people completely collapse after three or four days of total sleep loss, which adds up to 24 to 32 hours of sleep debt, in addition to what they already had. When a sleep debt is paid, it is only temporary. It means that the state of wakefulness occurs, and we begin to accumulate a new debt.

However, the alertness-sleepiness continuum is pretty complex, and environmental stimulation makes us very bad judges of our sleep tendency. We may not perceive the debt correctly if we are stressed by external stimulation. "Keeping your baseline sleep debt low can make the difference between being sharp enough to function in a crises and being too fuzzy-headed to think, between feeling just a little less energetic and feeling really awful" (Dement, 1999, p. 370).


Most of us know of certain conditions and substances that disrupt feeling sleepy, and our ability to correctly read the body's signals. Stress, caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, just to name a few.

Yet, there are two things that can really benefit us, and give us more bang for the buck.

The first is the light in our sleeping environment. It has the strongest influence on our circadian rhythms, helping our brain regulate when it's time to sleep, and time to wake in the long term game of prevention. Window coverings that allow morning light to gradually awaken us in the transition from darkness, aids the brain in maintaining its natural cyclical regulation. On a side note, regular physical exercise is also great at regulating the circadian clock.

The second is napping. Napping sometimes gets a bum rap. It's a great pleasure for many, yet is sometimes looked upon as laziness. Forget the negative connotation, and nap with a good conscience. It is a most effective tool for combating sleep crises. According to Dement
(p. 371), "Naps make you smarter, faster, and safer than you would be without them. They should be widely recognized as a powerful tool in battling fatigue"(1999, p. 371).  Naps pay down that debt!

Spend a few minutes to think about your life lately. How is your stress level? What are your daily habits, and how do you maintain your balance between rest and activity? How much sleep are you getting on average per night? See if you can uncover a few small things that are easy to adjust, which would improve the quality of your days by improving the quality of your sleep. 

It's time for a nap!

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Stay safe and warm wishes,
Tamera Daun

Dement, W.C. (1999). The promise of sleep. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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