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Paying the Sleep Debt: Can You "Catch Up" on Sleep?

Adults these days are pretty sleep-deprived, almost chronically. Only 27% of Singaporeans get the recommended 7+ hours of sleep every night, earning the top spot on the list of most fatigued countries in the world. The hustle and grind of daily life result in long working hours, irregular schedules and even sleep anxiety leading to late nights and early mornings. Sleep debt is then accumulated throughout the week, with people hoping to pay the sleep debt back during the weekend by sleeping in. Did you know that sleeping in on weekends to “catch up on sleep” can do more harm than good? If done wrongly and excessively, that is. Let’s look at how you can avoid sleep debt and “catch up” in a safe and healthy way for the long term.  

What is Sleep Debt?

How do you know if you’ve been accumulating sleep debt? Sleep debt can be calculated as the difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting every night for a good night’s rest, and the amount of sleep you actually get. If your body functions at its best on 7 hours of sleep, sleeping 5 hours one night, and sleeping 9 hours the next doesn’t mean that you’ve “caught up”. That missing 2 hours of sleep adds up throughout the week and can mess up your sleep rhythm in the long term.

One of the main consequences of accumulating sleep debt is fatigue, needless to say. Increasing disinterest, mood swings, lowered immunity and the slowing down of cognitive functions are some of the other major effects of not getting enough sleep consistently.

How to Fix Sleep Debt?

Pay more attention to your sleep patterns and habits. Many of us disregard our sleep hygiene as a trivial part of our daily routines without realizing the huge part it plays in ensuring our holistic health. Make sleep a priority in your day and plan your day around it. You can improve your sleep hygiene by slowly upgrading every element of your sleep routine. For example, if you’re used to sleeping in old ratty T-shirts, upgrade it to a comfortable set of pyjamas, made specifically to get you a good night’s sleep. Set a bedtime and stick to it as much as possible. Upgrade your sleep environment and make sure all your senses are best engaged for the best restorative sleep.

How to Catch Up On Sleep Properly

Your sleep debt can’t be paid back in a single weekend, you need days of consistent efforts before you start to feel better. Sleeping in a little during the weekends and taking a short nap is recommended, but again, it might not be enough to fully recover from the lack of sleep during the week. If you get 39 or fewer hours of sleep in one week, you need to get three to four extra hours of sleep over the course of a weekend, plus one to two extra hours of sleep every night for the following week to pay off that sleep debt.

If you’ve slept fewer than seven hours per night for years, it may take a few weeks of sufficient sleep to repay your sleep debt.

Sleep health is one of the most important, yet largely neglected, element of our overall health. It’s time we all get onboard with prioritising our sleep every night for a better day.

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