Adults between the ages of 18 and 64 need at least seven hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Most Americans fall short of that, and as a result, carry a sleep debt.
In a survey by The Better Sleep Council, 48 percent of Americans said they know they’re not getting enough sleep, and 52 percent between the ages of 35 and 54 admit they feel sleep deprived. It may not seem like a big deal to lose a few winks here and there, but it can put your health at risk and endanger others.
Losing Sleep Can Be Dangerous
When your body is awake, it naturally produces a chemical called adenosine. This chemical gets broken down while you’re asleep. But every time you get less rest than you need, adenosine builds up in your bloodstream and you feel an urge to sleep. This causes a sleep debt and the urge to rest becomes stronger the more adenosine there is.
People with large sleep deficits often feel drowsy and are at risk of dozing off. This is when sleep debts become dangerous. Drowsy driving is just as risky as drunk driving. Every year there are 100,000 car accidents and 1,500 deaths caused by driver fatigue, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Driving aside, sleep deprivation is bad for your health. Getting more sleep can improve mental acuity, strengthen your immune system and aid in the prevention of today’s biggest health problems like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
This is why it’s so important to reduce your sleep debt. However, there are good and bad ways to go about recouping those lost hours of shut eye. Here are some dos and don’ts:
Do: Go to sleep earlier each night.
Aim to hit the sack 15 minutes earlier than you do now. It might seem like you’re making little headway, but it can help reduce your sleep deficit over time. And it’s as easy to do as choosing not to hit the “Continue watching” button on Netflix or checking your emails one last time.
Don’t: Sleep in on the weekends.
Weekends seem like a great time to catch up on sleep you missed during the week, but this isn’t recommended. Oversleeping on the weekends can actually have a negative effect by throwing off your sleep cycle, and make it harder to fall asleep at your regular bedtime during the week.
Do: Wake up at the same time every day.
Everyone says it, but it’s so hard to do – especially when the weekend rolls around. Still, it’s timeless advice for a reason. Getting up at the same time every day can regulate your sleep cycles so you get more restful sleep every night and wake up feeling refreshed.
Do: Take naps.
The Sleep Foundation suggests that people with a sleep deficit try to catch a few Zzzs by napping. But, there’s a catch. This doesn’t mean you should doze on the couch Sunday afternoons after you’ve already slept in. You should only nap if you can do it on a regular basis. So, if you can commit to taking a 15 or 20-minute nap every day, then this is a good strategy for recouping lost sleep time.
Don’t: Take sleep medications without a prescription.
Avoid sleep aids, unless they’re prescribed by your doctor. They are notoriously addictive, and many people who use them later report difficulties falling and staying asleep without them.
Do: Track your sleep habits.
There are lots of tools that can help you learn about your sleep cycle by tracking the number of minutes you spend tossing and turning versus deep in REM sleep. People who use these tools often learn they get less quality sleep than they think and can make changes based on the data, such as going to sleep earlier or changing their nighttime routine.
Do: Sleep on a comfortable bed.
The quality of your sleep and your desire to hit the hay both depend on whether you have a comfortable bed. The right mattress and pillows can help you fall asleep faster and rest more soundly, which will put you on the fast-track to reducing your sleep debt and feeling more energized.
In today’s fast-tracked world, it’s difficult to make sleep a priority. We’re busier than ever and it feels like there are not enough hours in the day to complete a to-do list, let alone get the recommended amount of sleep. Nonetheless, it’s important to make it a prerogative, and work to reduce our sleep debts as an investment in our own health and safety.