Repaying Your Sleep Debt

by Francine Liang

I love sleeping. Sadly my relationship with sleep is strained because I rarely have time for it to visit me. Mostly we tend to catch up on weekends, but overloading on too much of a good thing does not make me feel that great afterwards.


Terrible analogy aside, having a healthy sleep schedule is important to your health and performance. Yes, this is something that we have all heard before. But rarely does anyone our age actually maintain a regular sleep schedule. Busy pre-health students probably have one of the more irregular schedules due to all-nighters and other obligations.

But why is sleep actually that important? Well, first off, in extreme cases, sleep deprivation can kill you. In less extreme cases, studies have shown that it can lead to increased irritability, lowered concentration and brain function, and weight gain among other things. Although these effects seem temporary, long term effects of carrying a sleep debt also exist – such as decreased immune function and an increased risk for chronic lung and heart diseases – and are serious enough to hopefully convince you to rethink your current schedule.

If you are like me and most American adults, you probably try to catch up on your missed sleep over the weekends or whenever you have no morning classes. Statistics show that most Americans (probably including you) tend to sleep an average of 2 hours more on weekends than weekdays. This might seem to be a good idea: a 2010 review published in Biological Psychology did actually suggest that the “sleep debt” may not even exist since sleep is largely phenotypically adaptable over time – meaning, your body may be able to adapt to consistently short hours of sleep. The authors of the review did also warn, however, that the body has limits on what it considers adequate sleep. Consistently getting less than six hours of sleep had negative health and functioning implications in most adults studied.

The current consensus is that the sleep debt does in fact exist and that it can be “repaid” with sleep over time. However, most researchers also agree that simply making up the sleep you miss hour-for-hour does not work. This is because the sleep debt builds up over time and can be masked by the refreshed feeling you get after just one night of good sleep. The healthiest sleep schedule you can have is thus a consistent one, with at least six hours a night.

So how can you improve your relationship with sleep? First, re-establishing a healthy schedule is key. Sleeping and waking earlier help get you back on the correct track. Then, to stabilize your circadian rhythm, it is best to have a set wake and sleep time, even on weekends. Try not to be tempted to sleep later just because you have later classes on a certain day. It is best to start following these guidelines now so that more serious problems do not develop later in life.

You love sleep and your body loves sleep. Establishing a stable, consistent relationship with it will make you a lot happier and healthier.

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