What is Sleep Debt and How Do We Pay It Back?

Gir napping on my yoga mat today.

Today was Festival of Sleep Day. Now that’s a holiday I could (and did) invest in. I have been terrible about getting enough sleep lately, especially while I was doing my practicum and final paper for my master’s, so this year I’ll be working on getting more adequate sleep.

Today, I got up around 10am after about 6 hours of sleep and decided to celebrate this holiday by sleeping for at least an extra hour or two, so I could get my full 7-8 hours of sleep. Well, I didn’t end up getting to sleep until about noon, but instead of getting an extra 2 hours of sleep, I got about an extra 7. I guess my body needed the rest. I’ve been building up a sleep debt and today was a day for paying some of it back. To find out more about what sleep debt means, what it does, and how to pay back your debt, read on.

Most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. If you get less, any unslept hours become “sleep debt”. Sleep debt can cause problems with health and mental functioning, and night owls (that’s me) and shift workers (that’s usually me) are at the highest risk for building one up. A study by the University of Chicago helped highlight that chronic sleep debt increases risks for obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School found that found impairments in reaction time, memory, and cognitive tasks in those getting four to six hours of sleep when compared to those getting eight hours of sleep a night. When compared to a group who stayed awake for three days, those who went two weeks with four hours of sleep were cognitively equivalent to the no-sleep group after the first sleepless day and had memory and reaction times scores similar to the no-sleep group on the second sleepless day.

Apollo sleeping on my leg. Clearly neither of my dogs have an issue with sleep debt. They can sleep anytime, anywhere.

Having a sleep debt doesn’t put one in a hopeless situation, however. Sleep debt can be “paid back,” which is what I was doing today, and you don’t necessarily have to sleep the same number of hours you were short to do so. The regional director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers recommends that those missing 10 hours of sleep in a week get 3 to 4 extra hours of sleep on the weekend and an extra hour or two hours per night until the debt is repaid.

For those who have built up a bigger sleep debt, he recommends a low-stress, light-obligation vacation in which one turns off one’s alarm clock and sleeps every night until one wake’s up naturally. To avoid building up sleep debt again once it’s paid off, he recommends going to bed and getting up at the same time every day during the week and, if necessary, catching up on some sleep debt on the weekends.

If you’ve built up sleep debt because you’re a night owl, have insomnia, or get too busy doing things and don’t get to bed in time, paying back your sleep debt may seem easier said than done. In future posts, I’ll talk about some sleep hygiene techniques and things that I do that help me relax and fall asleep, so stay tuned.

Do you have a sleep debt? If so, please share in the comments what you’re doing (or planning to do) to pay it off. If you’re getting enough sleep, please consider sharing your healthy sleep habits in the comments below.


Reference: The information in this article was summarized from information found in Repaying Your Sleep Debt found on Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications. It’s an extensive article and includes much  more information than I mentioned here, so check it out if you’re interested in further reading.

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