If there’s one thing you take from this article, make it the understanding that sleep debt is cumulative. The deficit adds up, and eventually it takes its toll on our health and wellbeing.

Where We Are

Today’s mentality isn’t the beginning of America’s celebration of hard work, striving, and achievement. It might, however, be something of an awakening. (A re-awakening, perhaps?) Decades of research combined with easy access to all the information known to man is finally adding up to an awareness of sleep as the basic life necessity it really is. Corporations and schools are taking notice. The trendiest workplaces have nap pods. You can overhear “sleep hygiene” conversations at coffee shops. Restorative rest is finally getting the attention it deserves.

What’s Happening?

We know that humans need a certain amount of sleep, and we know it needs to be high-quality. What happens when we don’t get it, however, hasn’t been very clear. Sure — we feel tired, are less productive, and get cranky. But why is that? What’s happening? And is one night of uninterrupted sleep enough to reset the whole system?

First, check out these sleep-deprivation-related risks:

Short-term risks: foggy brain, weakened vision, irritability, distraction & fatigue

Long-term risks: weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke & memory loss

Are you scared sleepy yet?

Your brain on sleep debt…

Throughout the day, a chemical called adenosine builds up in the bloodstream. During sleep, the body is able to break down adenosine, and the brain has a chance to flush out toxins. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get around 8 hours of sleep each night, but some may need as many as 10. Even if you’ve sworn off all-nighters, you can wind up in the hole. There are two kinds of sleep debt, and they’re caused by partial sleep deprivation and total sleep deprivation. Each time you get less than your ideal amount of sleep (which might be set in part by genetics), you accrue sleep debt. The more nights you shave time off your sleep session, the higher the tally goes. That’s why recovering from a sleep debt built up over years can take months.

Like credit-card debt, sleep debt has to be repaid.

This might be why you feel like you need a vacation right after your vacation. Sleeping a whole lot in short bursts is only likely to throw off your circadian rhythm and cause more trouble. Taking the tortoise approach might be frustrating, but it’s the only sustainable way to go. Fortunately, you can attack your debt on two fronts: depth and breadth. Perfect your sleeping environment to prevent external factors from interrupting your slumber. Replacing your old, worn-out, or just-not-perfect-for-you mattress is a critical step. Then you have to commit. Like so many people who rack up credit card debt when they turn 18, once you’ve resolved your sleep debt, your goal should be to live debt-free day to day. Being well-rested is a lifestyle. Make time for the amount of sleep your body actually needs. Don’t indulge in caffeine or alcohol before bed. And don’t get discouraged. Changing your sleep patterns takes time, but it’s well worth the benefits to your health and wellbeing.

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