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The Cost of Overwhelming Sleep Debt

The Sleep Club Editors

“I’ll catch up on my sleep this weekend.” It’s a promise we make frequently when we’ve denied ourselves the rest our body needs. The reason for missing out on the slumber that rejuvenates us isn’t important. The belief that we can somehow “make it up” — on the weekend, by sleeping in on another day, by going to bed earlier “tomorrow or the next day” and on and on — is. As much as we’d like to believe we can get the rest back that we have lost, especially after a long period of shortening our time with our eyes shut and actually sleeping, the truth is a bit tricky.

Overwhelming sleep debt kind of works like this…

You have both a checking and savings account.


You have money automatically transferred from your checking to your savings monthly, weekly, whatever, to build a nice nest egg. Awesome. Then one month, you have more bills than usual and you need to cancel just this one transfer to savings. You know, to make sure you’re covered. Very responsible. Then it happens again. You cancel those automatic transfers more often, you move money from savings to checking more than you put money into your nest egg and before you know it, your savings is down to almost nothing, “promising” you’ll begin saving again… soon.

This is a debt you owe yourself. A promise you can’t keep to make your life better. And that’s what sleep debt is. It’s not a payment you owe someone else — although, when you think about it, how you react to your lack of rest can affect others. This is something you give back to you, what you need to do for yourself and thinking you’ll be able to repay yourself the sleep you’ve lost has been discovered to be not so easy. Not only that, but you are putting yourself into a more dangerous physical and emotional position than you may have thought.

We know, by the way, that we have discussed, frequently, the benefits of sleep. We also know that we’ve mentioned a few things about how lack of it will hurt you. Not affect you, not create difficulty but literally, absolutely and without fail hurt you. It’s the reason we wanted to take just a little bit of time to comment and share what we’ve learned about that whole thought of, “Yeah, I’ll catch up on it when I’ve got the time.” The time, my friends, is now and we aren’t ones to demand or anything, but we kind of feel like we need to be a bit hardcore on this because when we read all of the side effects and issues created from this lack of sleep thing AND how always putting it off only exacerbates the issue, we knew we wanted to come in hot and real.


Yes, you can catch up on sleep

Bet you didn’t see that one coming. We know that for many years the word was, “No matter what, you can’t catch up on sleep.” Recent studies, however, show you can and there are ways to go for it. BUT…

Yep, CAVEAT! You need to COMMIT TO REPAYING YOUR SLEEP DEBT. Just like financial, if you don’t stick with catching up on your sleep it won’t happen. You won’t feel any better and your lack of sleep will continue to plague you. Because so much of the word on zzzz street before was there was no way to make up for lost night-time, we discovered there are varying reports on how you can repay yourself, quite frankly. 

Do you sleep an extra three or four hours on the weekend or do you go to bed earlier but wake up at your usual time? Are long naps better to make up for lost sleep time, short power naps or no nap at all? Go on vacation and sleep as long as you want until you naturally wake up and, naturally, get yourself back on track, or just add additional 15 or so minutes at a time, even on the weekends and vacation? FORGET ALL OF IT AND JUST STOP BEING AN IDIOT WITH YOUR SLEEP IN THE FIRST PLACE?!? 

We, unfortunately, saw so many different and rather disparate bits of info, we decided to figure out on our own with the information we waded through for you — your welcome — to bring you some ways WE THINK will help you get back the sleep you’ve lost if you’ve been pulling those nasty all-nighters — whether as a student (tsk, tsk), pressure prompted career-person, or new parent — or experiencing a periodic bout of insomnia. 

And so (drumroll, please) here are SLEEP CLUB’S 3 WAYS TO REPAY YOUR SLEEP DEBT (based on research and gut reactions to said research.)


1. Add small bits of extra time to your weekend sleep AND go to bed earlier during the week BUT wake up at your usual time

Everything we read went through a few machinations — sleep longer on the weekends to make up for the week, don’t sleep in on the weekends, take naps, DON’T take naps — and from all of that, we decided to keep out of the nap controversy and just look at how you can get yourself out of sleep debt on the regular. We’ve tried the adding of maybe about an hour extra on the weekend and grabbing time in bed earlier than normal during the week but waking up at the same time as you normally would. It worked for us. We got back into the circadian rhythm with it and even that extra hour doesn’t seem to make us stay up later than normal on the weekend. 

We also took into consideration that we normally stay up pretty darn late no matter what day it is, so, for us, it worked to do it this way. However, if you’re the kind whose weekends end up being all-night affairs, we recommend you watch your alcohol too close to your weekend sleep and remember to keep media completely out of the picture when you go to sleep so you can wake up just an hour later than normal AND grab a quickie 20-minute power nap somewhere in your day.


2. Slow and steady rebuild

Reevaluate your sleep habits and think about what might work for you to shore up your lack of it. Create a sleep journal, premake meals to get to bed earlier and easier, change when you exercise — whatever you need to do, take a step back and be honest about it. Recognize it will take time to repay yourself the sleep you lost and whatever change you make, STICK WITH IT. You’ve probably heard that after 40 days of doing something consistently it starts to become a habit, after 66 days, it’s set. SOOO…  It won’t happen overnight — no pun intended — but if you give it the time and effort, you get back on track, replenish your depleted sleep account, and even maintain it.


3. Don’t beat yourself up about it

We are harder on ourselves than anyone else. Just as with finances, we beat ourselves up when we backslide, aren’t responsible enough, etc. We compare ourselves to others and get on our own backs like crazy. Don’t. Please, don’t. None of us slumber perfectly all the time — no matter what anyone tells you. It is a deep commitment that you need to make and if you’ve been consistently short-changing yourself, repaying yourself takes effort and focus. 

Take a deep breath, slowly begin adding hours to your rest, tracking how you’re doing, and if you go back, then start again. No matter what, keep going. You can do it. Really.


Pay yourself first

Rule one in saving money is “Pay yourself first.” The same is true here. Think of yourself first. Give time to yourself to rest and rejuvenate. You’ll see the returns in everything you do and live, and your sleep/wake/dream will thrive once again.

Night Sky Night Sky