Paying down your sleep debt may not make you rich, but it will enrich your quality of life.
Sleep is a lot like money. If you have enough, life is good. But if you’re in debt, everything is a little bit harder.
Just as people struggling with money troubles might visit a financial counselor, advice from a sleep expert can help you get your sleep assets in order. With the right strategy, you can reap the dividends of better health.
Here’s a step-by-step plan for reducing your sleep debt.
The best way to reduce sleep debt? Don’t accumulate it in the first place, says Joseph Ojile, MD, a sleep specialist and a National Sleep Foundation board member.
Everyone’s needs are different, but if you typically wake up feeling refreshed, you’re getting enough sleep. Of course, when you get sleep is important, too.
“You can only move your body’s sleep-wake cycle about an hour or two every day,” Ojile says. “More than that has the same effect as jet lag.”
So unless you’re working to pay off sleep debt, if you typically get up at 7 a.m., don’t sleep in past 9 a.m. on weekends or you’ll throw off your body clock.
If you’re extremely sleepy during the day or have signs of sleep deprivation such as trouble concentrating or irritability, it’s time for an intervention. Examine your sleep habits just as you would your spending habits.
“Like looking at yourself in the mirror, there’s a degree of honesty involved when you say, ‘I need to make sleep a priority,’” Ojile explains. “You’re not sacrificing anything by getting more sleep. You’re actually going to feel better during the day.”
If you have trouble managing your sleep debt on your own, ask your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist.
If your sleep debt is short-term, it won’t take long to get your body back in balance. Just a few days of getting into a regular sleep-wake pattern and sleeping more will do the trick.
On the other hand, if you’ve been sleeping only five hours a night for months or even years, it’s going to take longer. The same basic idea applies: Get into the habit of sleeping more on a regular schedule.
“Slowly pay back that sleep debt just like you would slowly change your eating habits to lose weight,” Ojile suggests. “Over time, you’ll pay back that sleep debt naturally, just like you’ll lose weight if you watch what you eat.”
Adhere to good sleep hygiene. A cool, dark bedroom is optimal. Don’t watch television or use computers and electronic devices in your bedroom. The light they emit can trick your body into thinking it’s time to wake up, which disrupts your sleep-wake cycle.
Also avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy foods or exercise right before bedtime. Instead, try relaxing activities such as listening to music or meditating.
Just like developing a savings strategy for your financial well-being, establishing good sleep habits will pay off.
Financial experts always advise having a rainy-day fund. It’s equally smart to have a strategy to address unavoidable sleep disruptions, such as having to work late on a project or take care of a sick child or spouse.
Daytime napping is OK for people who just can’t get a full night’s sleep because of work or family responsibilities, Ojile says. The National Sleep Foundation suggests sticking to naps of 20 to 30 minutes. You can nap on a schedule or when you feel too tired to continue with your day. Get short bursts of sleep when you can.
In a pinch, moderate caffeine intake may help you get through times when adequate nighttime sleep isn’t an option. Ojile says it can be an appropriate short-term measure, but don’t go overboard.
“Don’t think of it as a burden to get a little more sleep,” Ojile says. “Look at the bigger picture and you’ll see how the quality of your life can be improved.”