We are basically at the end of another year. Can you believe it!? 2018 is in the bag and in a week’s time, we say hello to 2019. This past year has gone by incredibly fast! It is almost unreal. And what a year it’s been! Work, studies, relationships and so much more. Can you remember the polony crisis? Yup, that happened in this year. Load shedding in the summer, this year. And so the list goes on and on. We had a rough 2018, I think everyone can agree with that. But how did the past year affect your sleeping patterns? Did you sleep between seven and eight hours every night? Somehow I doubt it. The odds are that you have accumulated a very nice amount of sleep debt this year. You heard me, sleep debt! And before you ask, yes it is real.
What is sleep debt?
As you already know by now, the average adult should sleep between seven and nine hours per night. Every night. When you do not sleep the recommended amount of hours each night, you build up some sleep debt. It is similar to building up debt at the bank, really. If you need R800,000 to buy a small house and you only have R600,000 in cash, you borrow the deficit from the bank, correct? If this is the case, you are now in debt to the bank. Now let us say for argument’s sake you have to sleep for eight hours. If you only sleep for six hours, you owe your body two hours worth of sleep. And you can’t repay that by using ice cream or chocolate.
So if you work late all week, or you play games until the early hours of the morning and you don’t get your required hours of sleep in, you are in debt. Even if you take the weekend to catch up on some of the week’s lost sleep, you might still not regain all the lost hours of sleep that your body needs. If you sleep for only six hours a night during the week, you lose out on minimum five hours’ worth of sleep, and that is only if you are one of those lucky ones that only require seven hours of sleep per night. Will sleeping in for an hour or two make up for that lost sleep?
And the simple answer is no, it will not. You will need to sleep for at least ten and a half hours each night on the weekend to catch up on the week’s accumulated sleep debt.
Why does sleep debt matter?
Okay so now you are probably at the point where you realize that you owe your body some zzz’s. But why? Why does it matter if you have accumulated twenty or thirty or even a hundred hours’ worth of sleep debt over the year? Everyone has it, so why should you be phased about it, right?
There are a whole lot of studies out there that show the same thing: people who lack sleep make mistakes. In some cases massive mistakes that costs a lot of lives and money to repair. One study shows that fatalities in American hospitals can be reduced by up to 36% if only the surgeons and interns do not work such long shifts at a time. The post crash investigation on the failed Challenger space mission showed that the leading engineer was sleeping way too little.
Bringing it a bit closer to the body. An alarming amount of car crashes can be attributed to sleep debt. Because if you do not sleep enough, your brain just doesn’t function as well as it should and then you make mistakes. It is okay if you mistakenly cut your finger while peeling the potatoes, but taking someone’s life by accident because you didn’t see the traffic light had turned red. Well that is something else entirely, won’t you agree?
Can you pay back your sleep debt?
Well you certainly can’t ask your government to write it off and create artificial sleep hours to make you feel better. But you can pay back your sleep debt, with time and with patience. Time is what most of us lack, but that is why now is the time to start! Before you start trying to manically pay back your sleep debt, take a deep breath and calm down. You will most like not be able to just sleep for a week and then you have your lost sleep back. If you can afford a sleep clinic and take a week or two off to just sleep, do it! But if you can’t, try to remember that slow and steady wins the race.
The first step to recovering those long lost hours of sleep is to go to bed when you are tired. Do not force yourself to stay awake for just one more episode or just one more game or one more paragraph of your book. You can always watch that episode tomorrow or read that paragraph another day. When your body tells you that it is time to sleep, listen to it. Go to bed and sleep. Forcing ourselves to stay awake is not conducive to healthy living. In fact, a study on sleep patters shows that pushing past your tiredness often leaves the body feeling less tired.
Think about it, your body tells you it needs to sleep, but you tell it that it doesn’t need to sleep. Then it accepts the fact that it was wrong and it did not need sleep, so when you eventually want to go to bed, your body is like: “Na-ah! You don’t need sleep! When I told you to go to bed you were all like, not now and stuff, so stay awake now!”
More ways to pay back your sleep debt
So our first way of paying back sleep debt is to go to bed when we get tired. That is not always easy, especially if you have kids or you have people over for dinner. Whatever the case may be, it is not easy. So slack of a little. Don’t invite so many people over. Just spend some quality time at home with the wife, the kids and the bed. If you are single, just stay in and spend some quality time with the bed.
Then, after you went to bed when you felt sleepy, don’t put your alarm on. Just wake up naturally. You will be amazed at how much longer you sleep than usual! Sometimes when I do this I sleep for up to eleven hours in a stretch! That is a lot of sleep. Now try to do this for a week and you might start feeling a difference. Sure, you won’t get as much done as you normally do (at first). But when you caught up on all those lost zzz’s, you will function at a higher level and get more done in less time. The quality of what you do will also be much better than what you normally do, whether it is work or play related.
Try to sleep like this for the rest of the holiday. Go to bed when you are tired and wake up without an alarm clock. It will do you a whole lot of good!
What if I don’t have a week or two to just sleep whenever I feel like it? Can I still catch up on my lost sleep?
Of course you can! It will just take more dedication and effort. But you can definitely do it! You will have to sacrifice some time for sleep though. Either some of your “me” time, like for reading, gaming, watching series, working in the garden etc. Whatever it is that you do for yourself and for relaxation. You might have to give up on that for a bit, if you can’t afford to give up work time or time spent with the family.
Why do you need to give up this time? Well, you need to actively set your mind on sleeping for an hour longer each night than what you normally get in. You can go to bed an hour earlier, get up an hour later, add half an hour before and half an hour after. However you want to do it and that will fit in easiest with your schedule. But you have to stick to it.
I’m not one for keeping a sleep diary, but if you have to make extra time to get enough sleep, keeping a sleep diary might not be a bad idea. Write down when you go to bed and write down when you get up. Do this every day for at least a month and then you will see how much you sleep each night. With this information you can plan the following month’s sleep a little better. Repeat the process and in a couple of months from now, you will have a great sleeping pattern that will leave you well rested and ready for whatever life throws at you!