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Medicine or Malarkey: Can you repay your “sleep debt?”

Ah, sleep. If you’re like 73% of Americans, you’re not getting enough.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends a minimum of seven hours of quality sleep a night.

Sleeping less than that is linked with increased risk for obesity, stroke, and poor mental health.

The good news is that there’s a solution! You may have heard that “once you lose sleep, you can’t get it back,” but research shows it actually is possible to pay back your “sleep debt.”

Each March, National Sleep Awareness Week  highlights the importance of sleep health and how quality sleep can improve your life in a variety of ways. However, sleep health is vitally important to keep in mind all year long. Let’s explore short-term versus long-term sleep debt — and how to fix them!

Short-term sleep debt is when you generally get enough sleep but experience a rough week or two — maybe working to meet an urgent deadline or caring for a sick child. In this case, Harvard Women’s Health Watch recommends adding 1-2 extra hours of sleep every night (or during naps on the weekend) until you’ve paid back the number of hours you lost.

A long-term sleep deficit, which is what most of us are staring down, is trickier to resolve.

“If you’ve shorted yourself on sleep for decades, you won’t be required to put in a Rip Van Winkle–like effort to repay the hours of missed slumber,” reads the Harvard article. “Nonetheless, it could take a few weeks to recoup your losses.”

They suggest taking a sleep vacation — a stretch of days with no plans where your main goal is to turn off any alarms and let your body keep sleeping each morning until you wake up naturally. At first, you may find yourself sleeping 12+ hours a night, but you’ll know your sleep debt is settled when you finally level off into a regular, reasonable amount of sleep that has you waking up around the same time every morning with energy in the tank.

By the way, boosted energy is just one of the benefits of getting enough sleep. In addition to lowering your risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, you may find yourself enjoying better memory and even catching fewer colds, thanks to a boosted immune system!

If you don’t have the luxury of scheduling a sleep vacation, all is not lost. Even within the confines of a busy lifestyle, you can follow research-backed tips for better sleep, including:

  • Avoid caffeine starting six hours before you want to fall asleep.
  • Stop drinking any liquids two hours before bed, and use the bathroom right before slipping between the covers.
  • Try a low dose of melatonin about an hour before getting in bed.
  • Add a few minutes of relaxation to your bedtime routine — try a bath/shower or meditation.
  • Make it dark, quiet, and cool (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit) in your bedroom.

Here’s hoping you’re catching Z’s instead of counting sheep tonight!