Sleep Debt

The individual is designed to need sleep in order to perform at an optimal level. On a purely functional level, the body is programmed in such a way to ensure that a period of sleep is included within a person's circadian rhythm. While an adult is essentially programmed to need anywhere between 7 and 9 hours a night in order to perform at full capacity on a daily basis, life occasionally dictates that obtaining this level may not be possible. This leads to a condition that is known as sleep debt.

In essence, sleep debt is defined by the cumulative lack of slumber that is culled by an individual not meeting their basal sleep need; that is, the amount of sleep that an individual's body needs in order to obtain optimal performance. There are many varying causes behind sleep debt, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Sickness
  • Awakenings as a response to various environmental stimuli
  • Poor sleeping habits

When sleep debt does accumulate, an individual will experience its effects through various points within the circadian cycle, known as circadian dips. These dips, such as the one that has been shown to occur in the middle of the afternoon, are instances where an individual is biologically programmed to become sleepier and less alert than at other normal times during the 24-hour time frame. If a person has built up enough sleep debt, the effects stemming from these dips could be heightened. Additionally, an individual may feel a significant heightened of sleepiness shortly before bedtime, or they could still feel sleepy when they wake up.

Sleep Debt on a Biological Level

From a biological standpoint, the reason that sleep debt begins to accumulate can be traced back to a process of neurotransmission. An individual's sleep pattern is established due to sending signals which essentially dictate daily rhythms. This establishment not only sets the patterns for when an individual goes to sleep, but also the patterns for various anabolic processes, such as muscle and tissue growth and repair. The heightened levels of these patterns occur when an individual is in a state of deep sleep. When the individual does not get a proper amount of sleep, these patterns are disrupted, and the body reacts by accumulating sleep debt.

Myths Concerning Sleep Debt

There have been a few myths that have cropped up regarding the presence of sleep debt as science has established various means of study regarding the condition.

The first myth is that it is a sleeping disorder. From a technical standpoint, this is not true, as most of the root causes of sleep debt are environmental and not necessarily internal. That being said, it has been shown that sleep debt can result as a by-product from other sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Another myth regarding sleep debt is that a person can 'pay off' sleep debt by engaging in one extended period of sleep. This is not the case, because it has been determined that the 'repayment' of sleep debt is something that can only be done on a gradual basis.

Catching up on Sleep Debt

Although a sleep debt cannot be 'repaid' in one large interval of time, the good news is that it can be repaid. However, it has been established that this process is gradual, and could take a significant amount of time depending on how much sleep debt has accumulated over a given time frame. Scientific research has stated that adding an extra one to two hours of sleep during an individual's sleep session is the proper way to eradicate a sleep debt once it has started to accumulate.

It has been theorized that tacking on this extra time plays a big role in repaying sleep debt because it allows the brain the ability to rotate through another sleep stage cycle. Studies have shown that a sleep interval is actually broken up into a repeating cycle defined by cycles of sleep. One of these stages, short wave sleep or SWS, is where the body's deepest level of sleep occurs. It is at this particular level of sleep where a body performs its greatest period of internal restoration and rejuvenation, as several anabolic processes pertaining to growth, repair, and general maintenance occur. Adding an extra amount of sleep to an individual's sleep session allows for an extra rejuvenation period to occur, which gradually works to establish a more regulated sense of homeostasis and makes the individual feel less tired.

Negative Effects of Sleep Debt

While the short term effects could make you feel tired during the afternoon, the long term effects of a sleep debt that is left 'unpaid' can have some serious ramifications. For instance, it has been shown to disrupt various processes linked to the brain. This could manifest itself through emotional traits such as an increase in irritability, to operational impairments such as memory lapses or loss or a disruption of cognitive thought. It has also shown to cause a potential impairment to an individual's immune system and overall body temperature. Furthermore, an over-accumulation of sleep debt could lead to an increased risk in several serious medical conditions, such as various forms of heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, and obesity.

Preventing Sleep Debt Before it Accumulates

Obviously, it can be difficult to adhere to an individualized sleep cycle on a day to day basis. However, an individual can still deploy a few preventative measures in ensuring as regular of a sleep pattern as possible as a means to stave off as much sleep debt as possible.

The first measure is to establish a specific pattern of sleeping and waking up. This allows the body to set a consistent rhythm which can help to establish a proper individualized interval of sleep. For best results, this step should also be followed on the weekends. The second step is to establish a relaxation routine that helps the body unwind before heading off to bed, like soaking in a hot bath. Another measure is to set up a sleeping environment that is ideally suited for a consistent sleeping environment, such as a comfortable bed in a dark room. Finally, it is important that an individual adhere to a consistent program of exercise. By partaking in these measures, the individual will establish a consistent sleep pattern that will in turn eradicate the accumulation of sleep debt. And this eradication is extremely crucial, considering the long-term ramifications that too much accumulated sleep debt can cause.