Sleep deficits: are you in debt and danger?


It was a Bank Holiday weekend in the UK. Many may have used the opportunity of a day off to catch-up on sleep. “I’m going to catch-up on my sleep” is such a familiar refrain; most of us will have said it at some time or another, me included. And no wonder, as research in the public domain has increasingly made us more aware of the importance of sleep to our physical and mental health. For those of us focused on food and exercise regimes designed to improve our health, the potential benefits can be squandered by too little sleep, with more than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies reporting the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

However, a recent study seemed to offer hope that sleep deficits might not be as serious as we feared, offering anyone who likes to make up for lost sleep at the weekend some good news. Published in the Journal of Sleep Research and based on data from more than 38,000 adults from a Swedish lifestyle and medical survey in 1997, the fate of participants was followed for up to 13 years. Individuals who managed just a few hours’ sleep each day during the week, but then had longer sleeps over the weekends had no raised mortality risk, compared with those who consistently stuck to six or seven hours a night.

Short sleeps successfully countered by lie-ins?

When it comes to longevity, the study suggests the effect of short sleeps over a few days may be countered by a later lie-in. But research highlighted by Professor Matthew Walker in his book, Why We Sleep, suggests emphatically that any ‘sleep deficit’ (when we get less than our eight hours) can never be recovered, with serious impacts on our health beyond increased mortality risk.

The impact of sleep deprivation

Health consequences from sleep deprivation are legion, putting us at growing risk for a whole range of problems including weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.

  • Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
  • Inadequate sleep, even moderate reductions just for one week, disrupts blood sugar levels to such a degree they may be classified as pre-diabetic.
  • Short sleeping increases the chances of coronary arteries becoming blocked, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • When it comes to weight management, lack of sleep is a proven method to boost your appetite, swelling concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry, while supressing a hormone that signals satiety; just the thing to help set us off on a sugar binge.
Repairing the effects of sleep deprivation

It is important to note, however, that regardless of the amount of recovery opportunity, the brain never comes close to getting back all the sleep it has lost…That humans (and all other species) can never “sleep back” that which we have previously lost is one of the most important take-homes of this book…” Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep.

If a sleep debt is one we can never recover, does this mean there is no point to “catching-up” on our sleep? Absolutely not; ignoring our craving for sleep and allowing the deficit to develop is the crazy part. And as the Swedish study suggests, lie-ins can play a positive role in fighting increased mortality risk. However, when considering our general health, all science has really done is put in perspective that sleep deprivation is far more serious than we have ever realised.

So, if you’ve used the Bank Holiday weekend to catch-up on sleep, why not make this a first step to adopting a new sleep routine that will help you minimise future deficits building up. Medical evidence suggests that for optimum health and function, the average adult should get seven to nine hours of sleep daily, so here are some tips to help make it happen:

  • Create a ‘sleep time’ and space
  • Keep it on the cool side – at least a few degrees centigrade lower than ‘waking space’
  • Banish televisions, phones, Ipads
  • Avoid caffeine in the evenings and go light on alcohol
  • Banish night-time snacks
  • Get regular exercise, but not within three hours of bedtime. Interestingly, the causation seems to be sleep helps us to exercise, which helps us sleep, rather than the other way around; think how a poor night’s sleep destroys exercise performance.

If you can reform and start incorporating more regular sleep, do your best to avoid sliding back into old ways. Determine how much sleep you really need and make space for it in your daily routine, doing your best to include time before midnight, going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time too. And on weekends, feel free to indulge on lies-ins if you are able!


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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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