By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Jacob Stewart.
It’s 1 am and you’ve just refreshed your Instagram feed for the tenth time as you begin to calculate how many hours of sleep you would get if you magically passed out within the next five minutes. Sound familiar? If so, you are probably one of the many Americans today who are surviving off less sleep than their body actually needs, accumulating something called “sleep debt.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep debt is the “accumulated sleep that is lost due to poor sleep habits, sickness, awakenings due to environmental factors or other causes.” Sleep debt goes hand in hand with our bodies’ internal circadian biological clock, the system which regulates the periods of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout our day.
Everyone has natural dips in their circadian cycle which will cause us to suddenly feel sleepy. For most adults, these dips normally occur between 1 pm, and 3 pm, as well as 2 am and 4 am. If you are sleep deprived, these dips will be more intense, and can affect your cognitive abilities, metabolism, mood, and memory.
But how can you tell if what you’re experiencing is just a case of slight grogginess or the weight of an ever-increasing sleep debt? Well, there are a few things you will probably end up doing, no matter how many Red Bulls you chug, or espresso shots you down. Here are three:
1. Forget something.
It’s taking forever to leave your apartment building because every time you lock the door and take a few steps, you realize you forgot that umbrella, book, or paper that you needed today. A lack of rest can oftentimes be the underlying reason to that slight lapse of memory since sleep leads to memory consolidation and emotional processing, as studies have shown.
You decide to get Thai food for lunch and buy that thing that you pass everyday on your way to work. It always looks delicious and today you just can’t say no. And get Thai food for dinner because that Pineapple Fried Rice is totally something you want to relive within the same 24 hours. The urge to be more impulsive than usual sometimes appears after one has not gotten a sufficient amount of sleep.
As the director of Behavior Sleep Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, Shelby Freedman Harris, explained to The Huffington Post, the prefrontal cortex is associated with judgment, impulse control, visual association, and attention and is greatly affected by sleep deprivation.
3. Want to eat the world.
When you don’t get enough sleep, the urge to eat more, and continue to eat can be too intense to ignore and can sometimes lead to a day of constant snacking. The reason this happens is because sleep deprivation affects two key hormones in your body: Leptin and Ghrelin.
Leptin is the hormone that alerts the body when to stop eating, by supplying the sensation that we are satisfied hunger-wise while Ghrelin is a hormone that creates the sensation of hunger and tells us to eat. When we don’t get enough shut-eye, the hormone’s balance shifts, and the body begins to crave more often and feel satisfied less.
These side effects can be annoying and inconvenient and there can be even bigger consequences if the debtor does not try to amend their sleep cycle. Deprivation can also increase the levels of inflammatory mediators associated with long term chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, and can cause chronic mood illnesses like depression.
So how much sleep should everyone get? Well, that answer differs between people, and there tends to be no one single “magic number” for hours of sleep per night to guarantee functionality. The National Institute of Health says that school-age children need at least 10 hours, teens 9-10 hours, and adults 7-8 hours. But it’s not always possible to get that many hours of sleep—especially if you are a shift worker.
BTR spoke to two workers who deal with long shift hours that run through the night and asked them what aspect of their life was most affected by their alternative schedule.
Aman Ulla, for example, normally works shifts at Dunkin’ Donuts that begin at 11 pm and end at around 6 am. He tells BTR that his problem did not lie so much in not being able to sleep during the daytime, but rather in finding classes to take that are able to coincide with his unconventional schedule. For now, he is saving up money until he can quit and continue his studies during normal hours.
Branden Lawson, a 7-Eleven employee, shares with BTR that the ability to sleep when he arrives home is also not his issue, but rather “not being able to do much else but sleep all day and go back to work.”
Even with the use of coffee and other pick-me-ups, both employees express the feeling that they couldn’t do much past the bare minimum required of each day, a sensation that even someone with less sleep debt is also capable of experiencing.
To be functioning at your maximum capability and awareness, sleep debt needs to be paid off slowly. Some key methods include creating a dark, quiet space for slumber, avoiding nicotine, alcohol and large meals two to three hours before bed, sticking to the same bedtime and wake up time, and giving yourself some mental and physical wind-down time before even laying down. Perhaps the most important key however, is realizing you are in sleep debt to begin with.