Chronic Sleep Debt: The Costs Can Be Severe

In the US, we’re plagued with a problem, a debt problem. 

No, not that debt.  We’ll leave the trillions of dollars of debt to the government. 

Here we’ll be looking at something far more serious than monetary debt as we explore the ways chronic sleep deficit can hinder your health and wellbeing. 

According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 75% of all Americans run low on sleep. Hmmm, perhaps that’s why so many feel the need to run on Dunkin’?

Unfortunately, while we may give a nod or grin to the link between a lack of sleep and this familiar donut chain’s ad jingle, there is a grim truth behind this connection. 

From obesity to high blood pressure, diabetes, an increased risk of chronic disease, and more, skimping on sleep has devastating costs. 

So then, the important question is, can you mitigate these costs? In other words, can you dig your way out of debt when it comes to sleep? 

Let’s find out…

The Costs Of Chronic Sleep Debt

Sleep debt, or sleep deficit, is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount of sleep you actually get. 

Mathematically speaking, it looks a little something like this: let’s say your body needs 7 hours of sleep, but you only get 6, this results in a sleep debt of one hour. 

And, while an hour doesn’t seem like a lot, when you regularly lose an hour or two of sleep, this can add up quickly, resulting in disaster. 

Even going to bed a half an hour later than usual several times per week can add up to a significant sleep deficit over time. 

But, how do you know how many hours of sleep you need each night? 

The experts recommend 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night for adults. However, some individuals may find their sweet spot to be a little over, or a little under, these hourly guidelines.

You can find your sleep sweet spot by simply journaling the number of hours of sleep you get in a night, followed by how you feel the next day. 

Feeling sluggish or tired after 7 hours of sleep a few nights in a row? You probably need more sleep each night. 

Another way to gauge this is to allow yourself to sleep as long as you need over the course of a few days, all the while documenting sleep time and how you feel each day. 

But, with all this talk about how much sleep you need, do you ever wonder why it even matters? 

Is it simply to avoid feeling sluggish the next day? 

Sure, no one likes to feel sleepy as they go through their daily routine. But, sleep is far more essential than that! 

Your body needs sleep to heal, repair, and restore everything from muscle tissue to bones, blood vessels, and neural pathways. Even your cells, the smallest things within your body, are repaired, even regenerated, while you sleep.  

So then, no matter the reason for any sleep debt you may have accumulated: a unique work schedule, stress, late night Netflix binge sessions, or a snoring spouse, any loss of sleep, especially a chronic loss of sleep, disrupts those essential processes.

And, as your body continues to lack needed hours of sleep, this is when damage can occur. 

Damage From Sleep Loss

Research shows that chronic sleep restriction can trick your brain into thinking you’re not tired despite your habitual lack of sleep. Unfortunately this doesn’t negate the damage being done to your body internally. 

In other words, physical and mental performance decline is a better indicator of sleep debt than simply feeling tired, specifically when you’ve developed a habit of getting an inadequate amount of sleep. 

The physical and mental performance decline we just mentioned, all stemming from a chronic loss of needed sleep, can manifest in the following ways: 

  • a greater risk of developing diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • a weakened immune system 
  • an increase in the production of stress hormones which can lead to increased instances of anger, depression, or even suicidal thoughts
  • cognitive difficulties related to processing and storing new information
  • lack of energy throughout the day
  • difficulty focusing on tasks
  • unwanted weight gain, obesity

And, simply catching up on lost sleep, on the weekends for instance, may not be the answer to this problem either…

Damage From Sleep Disturbances

Unfortunately, even attempting to catch up on lost sleep, trying to close the gap on your accumulated sleep debt, can wreak havoc on your body. 

When you’re frequently going to bed an hour late here and there, then sleeping in now and then to recover those lost hours, this can create an inconsistent sleeping schedule which can also be damaging. 


Because, your body, at least as far as sleep is concerned, thrives on pattern. 

When your sleep habits are not consistent, your risk of the following medical conditions increases: 

  • difficulty with memory
  • heart disease
  • weight gain
  • anxiety 
  • depression 
  • bipolar disorder
  • slowed immune responses
  • all chronic diseases
  • premature death

Thankfully, as grim as this appears thus far, this problem that plagues so many of us isn’t one without hope!

How To Improve Your Sleep Habits, Potentially Reversing Sleep Debt

While attempting to fix this problem with a little extra shut eye here and there (creating inconsistent sleep patterns) may not be the answer, researchers believe the remedy lies in improving your overall sleep habits. 

Think about it, what does chronic mean? 

If you have chronically skimped on sleep, you’ve been losing sleep for a prolonged length of time. 

Therefore, to improve (or protect) your health, you need to make some long-term changes to your sleep habits. 

To reduce your risk of accumulating sleep debt, or to potentially reverse any damage caused by chronic sleep debt, work to implement the following healthy sleep practices to ensure you are getting enough sleep each night.

  • Examine your current nighttime routine and identify (and remove or alter) anything that may be keeping you up late or disturbing your sleep patterns. Keeping a sleep journal can be helpful here as well. 
  • Ditch alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine after dinner as these can all interfere with healthy, restful sleep cycles.
  • At least two hours prior to bedtime, ditch the electronics or invest in some quality blue light blocking glasses to diminish the disturbances these devices can cause to your sleep cycle. 
  • Try to keep naps to 20 minutes or less if you must take them during the day.
  • Prep your bedroom for sleep success: dark room, comfortable bedding and nighttime clothing, temps between 60-70 degrees, use a sound machine if helpful.
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, yoga, etc. during the day to relieve any stress that may be interfering with sleep. 
  • If you must sleep in on the weekends due to unavoidably lost sleep throughout the week, don’t sleep any more than two hours longer than your usual wake-up time as this can disturb your sleep pattern overall. 
  • Don’t work in your bed/bedroom as doing so can create a mindset of work, even when you’re wanting/needing to go to sleep. Your bed should be off limits for all other activities, aside from sleep and sex.
  • Be sure to get in some exercise throughout the day, but limit physical activity to earlier in the day to avoid sleep disturbances (earlier than 3 hours before bedtime is recommended). 
  • Change your mindset regarding sleep. Many view sleep as an interruption to life/work. Sleep is valuable, needed, crucial, even essential. Sleep can keep you healthy, and sleep can heal when you’re not well. It is an important part of your overall health and wellbeing. So, be sure to view this needed function appropriately, prioritizing it for your health! 
  • If you have tried the above practices, yet still suffer from chronic insomnia or loss of sleep, it may be time to speak with your physician. 


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