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What is Sleep Debt?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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When humans suffer from sleep debt, it means they are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Lack of sufficient sleep accumulates and results in negative effects on cognitive abilities. It also causes noted symptoms like sleepiness during the day, and if sleep deprivation is significant, it may cause serious risk, where people fall asleep even when they’re performing activities like driving. Some people suffer a few days of sleep debt but are able to restore this debt with a return to normal sleeping patterns, though the effects may still be felt on the days when sleep was poor and for a few days thereafter. Others have a constant sleep debt, that may continue to build, creating increased cognitive issues and a greater risk of falling asleep at any time.

The average adult requires about eight hours of sleep a night, and children and teens need more. Studies show that many Americans undersleep by about an hour each night, and the deprivation is more significant with certain groups, such as American teenagers, college students, workers on mid-shifts, and those training to be physicians. The routine lack of sufficient sleep can begin to accumulate a heavy sleep debt that isn’t fully remedied by trying to sleep extra on weekends to “make up” for it.

Some of the symptoms of sleep debt include sleepiness during waking hours, reduced activity levels, and lower performance ability. With a huge sleep debt, people may notice they have greater errors in cognition and might be more forgetful or learn at a slower pace. Risk for conditions like high blood pressure and obesity increase.

The situation worsens when sufferers of this condition find they literally fall asleep during waking hours, and might even do so while they’re performing activities requiring vigilance, like driving. There are many documented cases of people having fallen asleep at the wheel and caused accidents that were life threatening or fatal. Finally, there is a link between poor sleep and depression, and a larger debt may create greater likelihood of suffering depression.

Medical experts suggest there is no quick way to pay off sleep debt. Instead, people with this condition need to begin a payment plan, where they get a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night every night. Sleeping extra on weekends is not adequate for most people if they undersleep during the week. The goal is to return to normal sleep patterns daily.

This suggestion is problematic because many people have such busy lives, and can barely fit in the requisite amount of sleep. The high school student, requiring ten hours of sleep a night, may not get it because of school requirements and extracurricular activities. Adults often don’t get the sleep they need because their lives are overscheduled. Since so many suffer from sleep debt, a serious attempt to remedy it may involve systemic changes, where schools, employers, and each individual works to simplify obligations so that there is room in life for regular, adequate sleep.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Jun 08, 2014

The reason that so many teenagers tend to have sleep issues is that they are naturally tuned to stay up late and wake up late in the morning. There have been more than one study showing this to be true and that forcing kids into getting up early for school is actually detrimental to their health and ability to learn.

I don't understand why schools can't just make it so that they run from 10 to 5, rather than from 8 to 3.

When you look at all the extra work that teenagers have to do these days just to get into a good college, it's a wonder they have time to sleep at all.

By clintflint — On Jun 07, 2014

@browncoat - It's definitely possible that she is disturbing her own sleep by coughing. I know my father used to snore very badly sometimes and would always feel exhausted in the morning after this happened. He would joke it was because my mother would kick him, but I think he had trouble breathing, because he ended up going to a sleep clinic in the end.

I hope that never happens to me. I get sleepy very easily if I don't get a full eight hours at least.

By browncoat — On Jun 07, 2014

I know my mother suffers from sleep debt because whenever we go on vacation together she always falls asleep within minutes of her head hitting the pillow and she tends to do things like fall asleep in movies theaters or in front of the television without intending to do so.

She has a high powered job and often works very long hours, which I think contributes to it, but I also wonder whether or not she is affected by the fact that her lungs aren't very good and she tends to cough a lot at night. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if there's much she can do, as the doctors have told her it's a permanent condition.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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