Sleep debt refers to how much shut eye you ‘owe’ your body if you’ve been sleeping too little. Skip an hour a night on what your body needs, and within seven days, you’ve almost got yourself a full night behind. 

Adults require an average 8 hours of sleep per night.  Sleep expert Elina Winnel says you can only catch up on any lost sleep to a very limited extent.  “Statistics indicate that we can ‘catch up’ on about 20 hours of missed sleep.  We can also only catch up on this debt in one to two hour increments at a time - not it in one block,” she says. 

Long versus short term sleep debt

While short-term sleep loss can be made up relatively quickly, this is not the case with longer-term sleep deprivation. 

What does this mean? Forget skimping on sleep during the week with a plan of making it up on the weekend. “Sure you’ll feel more rested, but your sympathetic nervous system is still being overworked for five out of seven days, not dissimilar to eating junk food during the week and expecting a healthy diet on the weekend to make up for the other five days,” Elina says. 

The good news is that following a single night without any sleep, you’ll only need to bank an extra two to three hours than normal to return most functions and mood to normal. 

Does it even matter?

Sleep is our healing time, when the cells in our body repair, hormones are balanced and our brain is effectively ‘cleaned out’.  If we cut this time short, we reduce our rejuvenation time.  As a result, our stress hormones rise and our aging process speeds up.  

‘Sleep debt’ doesn’t work like a bank account, where you can withdraw money and later put it back.  Once it is gone, it is gone – and the healing and rejuvenation is lost, the ageing has occurred.  

“All we can do is return our bodies and brains to their new level of homeostasis, at a more aged level.  Our critical functions are restored, but the ‘wear and tear’ hasn’t been repaired like it would have with adequate sleep,” Elina says.

Habitually bad sleeper?

If you are struggling with sleep for over a month, Elina says it is a good idea to seek help – your GP is a good starting place.   

Make sure you are practicing good sleep hygiene habits, avoiding stimulants like exercise, tea and coffee before bed – though exercise during the day can be helpful. Keep your bedroom a den of zen and only for sleep and sex, and if you have stress in your life, take steps to reduce it

While you can certainly return your sleeping patterns to normal yourself, a period of shortened sleep can make this challenging for some (for example, new mums often struggle to stop waking up during the night after their babies have started to sleep through).  If the lack of sleep is an ongoing issue and you may need extra support. Talk to your healthcare professional about suitable solutions  to reset your sleep clock and get back on track. 

Want to reduce your sleep debt? Try our 4 step sleep action plan and get more zzz’s!