Sleep debt

From Academic Kids

Sleep debt is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep. The body seems to maintain an awareness of the cumulative amount of a person's missed sleep, when that person does not get enough sleep. Unlike sleep debt, a sleep surplus cannot be accumulated.


Accumulating sleep debt

One of the easiest ways to accumulate a sleep debt is by using an alarm clock. If someone regularly needs an alarm clock to awaken at the right time in the morning, they are probably incurring a sleep debt.

Since the average person probably needs more than the 8 hours sleep thought to be needed in Western cultures, it is easy to accumulate sleep debt.

Typically, for every two hours awake, the average person accumulates a little more than one hour of sleep debt.

Low quality sleep does not relieve sleep debt as well as deeper high quality sleep. For someone suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea, and whose sleep may be interrupted hundreds of times a night, they often get little relief from their sleep debt despite spending more time in bed than other people.

In 1964 Randy Gardner broke the record for consecutive sleeplessness. He stayed awake for 11 days in a row without sleeping and made it into the Guinness Book of Records.

Amount that can be accumulated

Many people can accumulate 30 or 40 hours of a sleep debt, and show no obvious signs of impairment. However, a doctor can test the reaction time, and other performance factors, to show that the person is not operating at peak performance.

Working against the individual's desire to fall asleep are what are called alerting factors. These can include stimulants, both in the form of drugs like caffeine, and also psychological triggers such as stress.

Accumulating 50 to 60 hours of sleep debt can be dangerous. Some people, after accumulating this much sleep debt, are susceptible to sudden dropping into short periods of microsleep. This can happen during repetitive activities such as driving, especially when the individual has had a recent relief of a stressful situation.

Evaluating sleep debt

Sleep debt can be tested through the use of a sleep latency test. This test measures how easily someone can fall asleep. When this test is done several times during the day, it is called a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).

However, you don't need to go to a sleep clinic, you can get an idea of your sleep debt at home. Try this simple test: Relax quietly in the afternoon in a peaceful place. If you feel the need to go to sleep, then you probably have a sleep debt. If you can consistently fall asleep during the day in less than 5 minutes, you could have a severe sleep debt.

Sleep debt needs to be properly managed to allow the individual to get to sleep, and stay asleep, at the proper times.

Society-wide sleep debt

Many doctors and public health officials feel that a high percentage of the populations of developed countries suffer from sleep debt. The demands of work, commuting, and active social lives, and the availability of 24-hour home entertainment and Internet access have caused people to sleep less than in premodern times. Sleep activists call for increased education campaigns to draw attention to sleep debt.

However, Jim Horne of Loughborough University, one of the world’s leading sleep researchers, questions such claims. In a 2004 editorial in the journal Sleep, he notes that available data suggests that the average number of hours per sleep in a 24-hour period has not changed significantly in recent decades. Furthermore, there is a range of normal sleep times required by healthy adults, and many indicators used to suggest chronic sleepiness among the population as a whole do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Sleep robbers

Sleep robbers are things that can "rob" one of a good night's sleep, causing sleep debt to accumulate. Examples of sleep robbers:

  • Pets in the bedroom
  • Alcohol or caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (loud snoring accompanied by gaps in breathing.)
  • Too much light entering the bedroom at the wrong time
  • Doing mentally stimulating things in bed, like office work
  • Having a sleeping partner with untreated sleep apnea.
  • Loud noises entering the room, such as a neighbor playing music too loud.

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