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The Science Behind Sleep Debt (Plus Tips on How to Avoid It)

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For reasons that even scientists don't fully understand, sleep is an unavoidable necessity. Our bodies are programmed to shut down every few hours a day to help maintain various body systems, repair cells and rejuvenate our energy levels.

Experts recommend that an adult gets 7- 9 hours of sleep per day.

But about 40% of Americans do not get the required amount of sleep. The average sleep time of most adults is less than 7 hours per night.

Not getting enough sleep, even if it is only one or two hours less than the recommended time, over a few days or weeks, causes accumulated sleep deprivation or what is known as sleep debt.

The Science Behind Sleep Debt

While you are awake your body generates a lot of energy to take you through the day. As cells synthesize energy they release a chemical called Adenosine in your bloodstream.

It is partially responsible for making you feel tired at the end of the day. When you hit the sack your body flushes all the Adenosine out of your system to create a fresh start.

When you sleep for fewer hours, Adenosine is not fully broken down in your body. Do this repeatedly and you end up with an overload of adenosine in your system. The result? Sleep debt.

Accumulated sleep debt results in severe sleep deprivation that could lead to serious consequences like falling asleep while driving or operating a machine.

It can also lead to various health problems.

Studies have linked poor sleeping habits to diabetes, heart disease, memory problems and weight gain.

Avoiding Sleep Debt and Sleep Deprivation

Avoiding sleep debt
A good sleep hygiene is essential to avoiding problems associated with sleep debt and sleep deprivation

Most people believe that sleeping in on the weekend is enough to recover from a week of little sleep.

Sleeping in may help you recover only if you slept poorly for just one or two nights. But if it is a habit, sleeping in on weekends will do little to settle your sleep debt.

To curb the problem, you need a complete makeover of your sleep routine. Here are a few things you can do:

Start Small

It is easier to change your sleeping habit when you start with small steps.

For instance, you could start by sleeping 10 minutes earlier than usual then gradually increase it until you get to a point where you feel you are getting enough sleep.

Other small changes like cooking and eating your dinner earlier can also help.

Make Your Bedroom Sleep-Friendly

Sometimes you may manage to get to bed early but struggle to fall asleep. The problem could be the sleeping environment.

Your bedroom should be clean, dark (when you are asleep), quiet and cool. It's also a good idea to invest in good bedding and especially a quality mattress.

If your current mattress is worn out or makes your back ache, consult our in-depth buying guide to find a new mattress online.

One other thing; keep gadgets away from the bedroom. The blue light from your phone combined with the heightened emotions that social media triggers will keep you awake for longer.

Avoid Caffeine and Excess Alcohol

Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster but it keeps you from going into deep sleep. Your body doesn't get the rest it needs.

Caffeine in the evening is also a no-no if you want to get a good night's sleep.

Food is another common cause of sleep issues. For a list of foods that can help you sleep better, check out this article on

Exercise regularly

Exercise is a great way to increase your sleep quality and keep insomnia at bay. You'll find that you fall asleep faster and sleep better through the night.

No Sleep-in Weekends

Sleeping late and waking up late on weekends messes up your sleep routine. Any sleep debt from the weekend carries over to the start of the week.

Weekend sleep deprivation is one of the causes of monday blues.

Try to maintain a constant sleep routine from Sunday to Sunday. It will help you stay energized and alert through the work week.

How to Repay Your Sleep Debt

If you already in the throes of sleep deprivation and are wondering how to get back to your normal self as quickly as possible, here are a few tips.

  • Take a nap – a short 20-30 minute nap can help delay the worst effects of sleep deprivation until later at night when you can sleep the fatigue away.
  • Sleep earlier – for the next few days, pull back your sleeping time by at least 30 minutes to give your body time to recoup all the lost sleep.
  • Don't make it worse. Your body is suffering enough without you making things worse. Avoid any more late nights and make sure you get enough sleep everyday. You'll feel perfectly fresh in no time.

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