Sleep debt: How to avoid building up a sleep deficit

We’ve all had to deal with a few nights of little sleep leaving us feeling like we just won’t make it through the rest of the week. Whether it’s the kids having nightmares, the temptation to binge the latest Netflix thriller, work from the office following you home, or something else entirely, there are plenty of things that can eat into our precious sleeping time.

While it can be tempting to think “it’s fine, I’ll catch up on my sleep at the weekend”, it’s not as simple as that. Recent research has suggested that sleep debt is not something that can just be paid back, and the ongoing build-up of sleep deprivation can lead to much deeper health problems.

In this blog post, we’ll look at what the latest thinking is on sleep debt, as well as share some tips on how to fix your deficit in the long run.

What does current science say about sleep debt?

Sleep science is a continuously developing field, and more research is being done into the impact of building up a sleep debt all the time.

A 2019 study, with the results published in Current Biology, looked at the consequences of only getting five hours of sleep through the week. One control group slept for nine hours, while another group slept for five with unlimited sleep allowed during the weekend, and a final group slept for five hours with no catch-up allowed at the end of the week.

They found that poor-sleeping participants were more likely to eat more between meals and gain weight, as well as have a slower release of the sleep-hormone melatonin, a disrupted circadian rhythm, and reduced insulin sensitivity. The most surprising result was that the two poor sleep groups experienced the same consequences, despite one set being allowed to “repay” their debt.

Similarly, 2018 research published in Scientific Reports found that those with a regular sleep cycle were more likely to have better heart and metabolic health. It also established that getting the recommended number hours every week needed to be backed up by a regular sleep pattern to feel the maximum benefit from rest, which suggests that shorter hours through the week and lie-ins on the weekend simply aren’t enough. How can you avoid building up sleep debt?

To save yourself from the late nights and lie-ins of the sleep debt cycle, you need to adopt a long-term view to avoiding a deficit. Below we’ve put together a few top tips for doing exactly that.

Keep to a regular bed and waking up time

Like one of the studies found, the best way to avoid building up a sleep debt is by keeping to the same waking and sleeping times every day, ensuring that you get 7–9 hours of rest. It’s important that you persevere with this schedule, even on weekends when you might be tempted to sleep in.

If you can stick to this, your sleeping pattern will be strengthened and your body will naturally get into the habit of feeling alert and drowsy at similar times, so you’ll find drifting off and waking easier.

Create a sanctuary that’s set up for sleep

Another incredibly important factor for avoiding building up a sleep debt is being able to snooze in the right type of environment — one that’s set up to be as restful as possible.

Aim to get your light and temperature levels just right: your room should be as dark as possible and 16–18°C to ensure you can drift off with ease. You should also try to keep your space free of any devices with screens, like phones, TVs, and tablets, to avoid distraction and sleep-delaying blue light from interfering with your body clock.

You should also ensure that you can rest in comfort if you want to nod off easily and avoid any debt building up. If your mattress is getting old or worn (check out our guide if you’re not sure), we recommend that you replace it with an extra-supportive memory foam mattress, or you upgrade it with a memory foam mattress topper. It also pays to have a comfy pillow and a duvet that’s appropriate to the season — we have a duvet tog guide you can follow to get this just right.

Get regular exercise, but not close to bedtime

Exercise and sleep have a very close relationship, where one can impact the other in quite a few ways — something that we’ve explored in a past blog post. Working out can be a great way to strengthen your sleeping pattern and, if you do an outdoor activity, you’ll be exposed to more sunlight, which can also be beneficial for rest.

However, exercising too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep by increasing your body temperature and releasing too much adrenalin for you to relax properly. That’s why it’s recommended that you try to work out earlier in the day or at least three hours before you go to bed if you only have time in the evenings. Follow these guidelines and you can reinforce your body clock and avoid sleep debt.

Stick to taking short naps

Taking a nap can also help to prevent a sleep deficit but, like with exercising, you need to do it the right way for it to have the best impact and to avoid it becoming a disruptor.

Naps can be restful and restorative, however, getting more than 90 minutes of shut eye through the day is enough to begin impacting your sleep cycle, so you need to make sure that you don’t oversleep and end up feeling too alert when bedtime rolls around. If you follow the tips in our blog post on the art of napping, you’ll be able to avoid sleep debt without overdoing it.

Follow our advice and you will be able to balance your sleep pattern and avoid building up any unwanted sleep debt. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions and be sure to check out our blog on a regular basis, as well as our advice centre, for more expert sleep guidance.

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