We’ve talked to you before about the dangers of racking up a sleep debt. Otherwise known as a sleep deficit, the condition of cumulative sleep loss is detrimental to everyday functioning and quality of life, but it’s not considered a disorder on its own. While the medical community at large disagrees as to the significance and measurability of sleep debt, for those of us suffering sleep deprivation, the struggle is real. Now that millions of Americans know that they’re in the red, it would be nice to know what we can do to minimize the deficit.

Don’t believe the hype?

If you feel content with your nightly 6-hour snooze, that’s not surprising. The more your tally of sleep debt rises, the less able you are to recognize it. After months or years of inadequate sleep, we can forget how it feels to be fully rested. Unfortunately, all the while we’re unaware, risks like weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are increasing. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have insomnia or another sleep problem to be running at a deficit. Even the soundest sleepers can suffer the consequences of burning the candle at both ends.

The Role of Rest in Rejuvenation

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night, and with good reason. It’s during the various stages of sleep that the brain gets the opportunity to quite literally take out the trash. Toxins that build up during the day are flushed out in the deep stages of sleep. The same happens in the liver and kidneys, which also take this time to get rid of unwanted substances. Rest reinforces the immune system and improves cognitive functioning. And it takes a long sleep session for all the body’s lubricants – mucus, tears, and synovial fluid – to fill back up. When we aren’t completing full sleep cycles or getting enough of them, the detrimental effects start to add up.

A Practical Solution

So, you know you’re running at a deficit and that letting it grow isn’t the healthiest way to live. What’s a busy, productive American adult to do? Well, “paying off” a sleep debt is remarkably similar to resolving a financial one, and making up for lost time takes a commitment. The first step is to stop accumulating hours in the negative column. If the prospect of an 8-hour sleep makes you hyperventilate, start at the bottom end of the recommended spectrum by shooting for seven hours consistently. The goal is to get the right amount of sleep for you, a matter which will depend upon your unique circadian rhythm. Use a sleep-tracking wearable device or app to determine how long it takes you to complete all the stages in a full sleep cycle. Your ideal amount of sleep will be a multiple of that cycle duration. Most people cycle through the stages of sleep in about 90 minutes and require 4 to 6 full cycles per night.

Sleep Debt Repayment Plan

Once you understand the length of your sleep cycle, you’ll know just how far in the red you’ve gotten. With the size of your tab abundantly clear, you can start chipping away at the downtime you owe yourself by taking these steps.

Set the stage. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary, and your bed should be engineered for optimal sleep. Don’t settle for an uncomfortable bed. If your bed is lumpy, sagging, or just plain unpleasant, invest in a new mattress chosen based on genuine research.

Nap (if it works for you). Napping during the slump from 2 to 4 pm is a great way to log extra hours of slumber. Just don’t use this approach if it translates to trouble sleeping at night.

Commit to a bedtime. Keeping a regular schedule will help you sleep more soundly.

Leverage the weekend. Instead of burning the midnight oil, turn off that alarm and settle short-term debt by sleeping three or four extra hours over the weekend.

Take a restful trip. We’re talking time away to invest in yourself. Instead of exploring the world, focus on the insides of your eyelids. Spend a week letting your body sleep as long as it needs, and you’ll be setting yourself up for long-term success.

Maintain your progress. Once you’ve gotten caught up, strive to live sleep-debt-free. The quality-of-life rewards of living within your physical means can be just as valuable as keeping your finances in check.

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