Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’ve pulled an all-nighter. From college finals week to sick children, after our teenage years we rarely get a full 8 hours of sleep. But science tells us that 7-9 hours per night is crucial for maintaining a healthy body and sharp mind. What you may not know is that sleep scientists overwhelmingly agree that sleep loss has a cumulative effect and has to be paid back in full.
Do We Really Need Sleep?
The short answer is yes. Sleep is crucial to maintaining good physical health and mental acuity. The long answer comes in the form of a research study done by the University of Chicago, in which volunteers only slept 4 hours per night. In less than a week (six days to be exact), these students had significantly elevated blood pressure, unusually high amounts of cortisol, the hormone linked to stress, and produced only half of their baseline antibodies when introduced to a flu vaccine. They also suffered from an increase in insulin resistance, which has been linked to Type-2 diabetes and weight gain. The results of this study have helped to confirm the link that most scientists already believed exists between sleep loss and health risks like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and memory loss.
Repaying Our Sleep Debt
It doesn’t matter what kind of debt you’re talking about, it’s always easier to accrue than it is to pay off. The bad news is that scientists believe that sleep debt needs to be paid back hour for hour. It’s hard enough to get just enough sleep to not add to a sleep deficit, let alone to make up for hours missed. The good news is that you get to start small. The first step in repaying a sleep debt is to make up for what you’ve missed during the previous week. If it’s only a few hours, then you can usually easily do it over the weekend. If it’s ten or more, you may need to cancel your Saturday morning obligations and sleep until you naturally wake up.
As for your long-term sleep debt, you should take a vacation every year in which you have very little planned for mornings (or late nights). Sleep should be a priority for you on your vacations since you are using the time for relaxing. My advice to you is to not bring your alarm clock or set any alarms on your phone. In fact, if you’re feeling particularly bold, turn off your phone every night and don’t turn it back on until you are fully awake for the day.