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How Sleep Debt Can Seriously Affect Your Health

One of the most serious medical conditions affecting our society is a lack of sufficient sleep, also known as sleep debt. While most adults require between 6 and ten hours of sleep a night (with 8 hours being the average amount of sleep needed), we are normally only getting around 6 to 7 hours a night.



The term refers to the difference between the amount of sleep a person actually gets versus what their body needs, and this debt can continue to accumulate and lead to much more serious health problems.

There are many different reasons why a person may begin to develop a sleep deficit, some short term, and some more of a long lasting problem associated with job, family, or lifestyle. Of course, insomnia and most other sleeping disorders can definitely lead to an individual having a large sleep deficit; however this is still not the case for the majority of individuals with a sleep debt. 

In most cases, the deficit has to do with our modern lifestyle, whether it be work, school, or family that keeps a person awake late into the night and requires them to wake up again when the alarm goes off in the morning. In truth, a person should go to sleep when they feel tired and not wake up again until their body is rested and decides it is time to wake up, no matter how long that takes.

sleep debtModern technology has only increased the problem, with twenty four hour entertainment readily available, many people find themselves occupied on the internet on computers or watching television until far past the time when they should be sleeping. 

Although many people debate whether we are actually getting less sleep than we used to, there is not much debate as to how the artificial lights from television or computers can negatively affect the quality of sleep a person gets, causing their brain to be more active and resulting in less time spent in the later stages of sleep where the real rest and regeneration occurs. 

Health Problems Associated With Sleep Debt

A lack of sufficient sleep can cause many short term problems such as a constant feeling of being tired, fatigued, or lethargic, trouble concentrating or remembering, impaired coordination and motor skills, blurred or foggy vision, and a whole host of other issues. 

While a lack of sleep can of course cause a person to feel tired and unmotivated, it can also lead to much more serious health issues as well. A big enough sleep deficit can even be fatal eventually, as humans cannot live for more than two weeks without sleep. This makes it almost as important to overall health and well-being as food and water. Some of the more serious long term consequences of sleep debt can include:

  • Resistance to Insulin and Diabetes

Studies have shown that a prolonged lack of sleep can eventually cause the body to start to become resistant to insulin, which can eventually lead to diabetes.

  • Weight Gain and Obesity 

sleep debtA lack of sleep can also cause the body’s metabolism to slow to dangerous levels, which will cause the person to easily gain weight and be at a high risk for becoming obese.

  • High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease 

Scientists have also found a link between sleep deficit and heart disease, which, along with diet, could help to account for the large rise in heart problems over the past few decades. Studies have also shown that people who sleep too little also normally have higher blood pressure than those who get enough sleep. 

Another factor is that a lack of sleep results in increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can also result in high blood pressure and heart disease.

  • Alzheimer’s disease 

Although the results of several studies are still being debated, some scientists have claimed that lowered levels of the protein orexin, which helps to control waking and falling asleep and is produced only during sleep, could be a significant factor in a person developing Alzheimer’s disease later on in life.

  • Lowered Immune System 

Many sleep studies have also shown that people who get too little sleep also suffer from a weakened immune system, as their bodies begin to produce almost half as many antibodies as a normal, healthy person’s. This can lead to a person becoming much more susceptible to diseases and infections, and is why people often get sick when they have not been sleeping enough.

Is it Possible to Repay Your Sleep Debt?

 

This is a question that has been hotly debated by sleep scientists, although the consensus now seems to be that yes, you can repay your sleep deficit, but it is extremely difficult. If a person gets one hour too little of sleep each night, over the course of a year this can amount to weeks’ worth of missed sleep, which can cause long term health problems, as mentioned above. 

 

Most studies have shown that the only real way to repay a sleeping debt is to make up for every hour missed with an extra hour of sleep. This means that if you missed five hours of sleep because of a stressful work week, then you will need to sleep an extra five hours during the weekend, which is obviously much easier said than done. Still, repaying this short term debt is much easier than trying to regain weeks or even years worth of lost sleep.

sleep debtThe only way to really recover from a long term sleep deficit is to begin to go to bed at an earlier hour and then sleep until your internal clock says it’s time to get up, without the help of an alarm clock

Eventually this will allow the body to develop a normal, healthy sleeping pattern and begin to regain all of the lost sleep. Still, because of professional responsibilities, most people cannot do this, so many doctors recommend taking a long, stress free vacation, and dedicating as much time as possible to sleeping.


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