Scientific evidence shows sleep is as vital to your health and wellness as diet and exercise, yet more than half of us aren’t getting the recommended number of hours. The result is a sleep debt that like the balance on a high-interest credit card, takes a greater toll on your health with each passing day. Whether you’re a woman caring for a newborn, a busy executive or a student burning the midnight oil, here’s why sleep debt matters and how to repay it.

What is Sleep Debt?

The term “sleep debt” refers to the effects of sleep deprivation. Coined by researchers to describe how the damage done by lack of sleep adds up over time, it’s used to describe the physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms of hours previously lost.

Symptoms of Sleep Debt

While you sleep, your body undergoes essential biological maintenance that leaves you prone to a physical or emotional breakdown if ignored.

Sleep is critical for:

  • Removing waste products from your organs and brain

  • Rebuilding muscle tissue

  • Restoring your immune system

  • Regulating emotion and appetite

  • Reducing inflammation and more

Studies suggest that lack of sleep contributes to a wide range of medical conditions from diabetes and depression to obesity and prostate cancer.

person yawning due to sleep debt

How much sleep do you need?

Sleep range recommendations were recently updated to reflect the latest research. The range widened for most groups, and categories were expanded to be more age-specific.

While guidance remains the same for adults, the sleep range widened two hours for infants and an hour for school-aged children. It’s a change that’s forcing schools nationwide to reconsider their start times.

The suggested number of hours per night is broken down by age below. Check to see your age range’s suggested sleep requirement.

  • Newborns: 14–17 hours per night

  • Infants: 12–15 hours per night

  • Toddlers: 11–14 hours per night

  • Preschoolers: 10–13 hours per night

  • Grade-Schoolers: 9– 11 hours per night

  • Teens: 8–10 hours per night

  • Adults age 26-64: 7–9 hours per night

  • Seniors 65 and older: 7–8 hours per night

Depending on genetics and the quality of sleep, the number of hours individuals need varies. If you wake up feeling refreshed and focused, chances are you’ve slept enough.

How does sleep debt happen?

Sleep debt happens anytime there’s more than occasional lost sleep. It can occur from spending too many hours at work or binge-watching a new television program, or it can be the result of serious sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea.

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, your symptoms should be medically reviewed. But in most cases, repaying sleep debt is easier than you think with these simple solutions:

  • Stick to a regular bedtime — it’s scientifically proven to enhance sleep quality.

  • Wind down before sleep — limiting physical and cognitive stimulus for an hour before bedtime cues the brain that it’s time to rest. Mediation and soft music can help make falling asleep faster.

  • Avoid chemical stimulants — replace evening alcohol and caffeine with a warm cup of chamomile tea.

  • Optimize your sleep environment — cover windows, limit light-emitting electronics and close the door to reduce ambient noise. A bedroom temperature between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

Staying Out of Sleep Debt

The best way to avoid any type of debt is to stay out of it — the more you create, the longer it takes to repay. Getting a few extra winks on your days off is enough to settle short-term sleep debts, but the effects are cumulative. Overcoming chronic sleep deprivation can take months of extra rest.

Final Thoughts on Sleep Debt

Staying healthy requires more than just nutritious food and regular exercise, you need the love of family, fun with friends and above all — a good night’s sleep.