Sleep debt might be the reason you’re always tired—here’s how to avoid it

Cat sleeping in bed with eye mask on

When you’re all revved up for your new coursework, it’s easy to skip sleep in favor of diving into your reading. OK, it’s easy to skip sleep in favor of Insta-scrolling, Netflix-watching, nacho-eating, just about anything. If you find yourself going too far into the wee hours of the night too often, you can technically make up a few late nights by sleeping in for a few days—but you might still be racking up serious sleep debt.

“Sleep debt is an accumulation of sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist in California and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Think of your sleep like a savings account, where the minimum balance has to be roughly eight hours a night (some of us might need more or less)—for every night you don’t put that amount in your sleep account, you accumulate overall sleep debt. And trust us, that can add up fast. Sleep debt is pretty common—70 percent of students reported that they snag less than eight hours a night, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. 

Why does it matter? Not unlike managing your bank account, accumulating sleep debt can leave you feeling depleted. Lack of sleep can mess with:

Graduation capAcademic performance Students who are sleep deprived struggle more academically and are at a higher risk of failing compared with those who are getting enough rest on a consistent basis, says a 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep. “Sleep deprivation affects cognitive function directly and quickly,” says Dr. Breus.

In studies, sleep and GPA are related, but not necessarily in the ways you’d think. Consistent sleep and wake times may have more of a grade-boosting effect than logging more hours, according to a 2014 analysis of recent research in Nature and Science of Sleep. It’s not just about how long you’re sleeping, but how consistent your sleep schedule is (or isn’t).

Sad/ sick emojiMood Female college students who reported nightly sleep debts of two hours or more were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms than those with smaller debts, a 2010 study in Psychiatry Research found. What are depressive symptoms? They include everything from changes in appetite to lack of focus to blues you just can’t shake. (And this is a serious thing: If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out to a friend, trusted professor or supervisor, or a counselor on your campus or in your community. Because help is out there, and you matter.)

Sluggish bodyBody Sleep debt affects your bod in a number of ways: It increases the production of your hunger hormones (while suppressing the hormones that tell you you’re full), raises levels of your stress hormones, and even messes with your body’s ability to use sugar effectively, according to a 2010 meta-analysis of studies in Pediatric Endocrinology.

Sleep debt can snowball fast. The more sleep deprived you are, the less likely you might be to notice. So how do you know—and how do you fix it?

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How to tell if you’re in debt

The simplest way to tell if you’re racking up sleep debt is to do the math. If the average adult needs about eight hours of sleep each night and you get only six most days of the week, by the time Friday rolls around you’re 10 hours in debt.

In most cases, the ideal level of sleep needed to keep your balance in the black is individual, says Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic at the University of Michigan. The average person needs somewhere between seven and nine hours nightly, but “your absolute best judgment of whether you are getting enough sleep is if you can wake up at the time you’re supposed to without an alarm clock,” she says.

Here are some other signs you might be in sleep debt:

  • You can’t sit through a lecture or a meeting without getting drowsy or even nodding off.
  • You fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow.
  • You don’t wake up until the second your alarm goes off. (During a healthy night’s sleep, you should actually go through cycles of slight wakefulness.)
  • You feel drowsy during downtime, like while reading or watching TV.

To figure out how much sleep you need, test your sleep limits during a break from school or a vacation when you have more time to sleep, says Dr. Hershner. “For the first week or two, you’ll probably still be catching up, but by the third week, how much you’re sleeping should be a good indication of how much your body actually needs.”

How to get out of debt

Technically, you can “pay off” your sleep debt by making up those missed hours every weekend, but playing catch-up by sleeping your weekends away isn’t ideal, partially because you’ll throw off your sleep schedule for the following week. That contributes to—you guessed it—more sleep debt. The most realistic way to get out of sleep debt is by preventing it in the first place. And the beginning of the year is the best time to do that. Here’s how:

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15 minutes earlier to bed; 15 minutes later to rise

“Would I like students to get eight hours every night? Yes. Do I think that’s realistic? No,” says Dr. Hershner. If getting to bed an hour earlier every night seems about as likely as your professors canceling class in favor of a group nap, try to make small schedule changes like getting to bed 15 minutes earlier and streamlining your morning routine so you can sleep 15 minutes longer. You just clocked 30 more minutes.

Take one less social media break a day (Just. One.)

An easy way to score yourself those extra 15 minutes at night is to cut out one social media break during the day. We know tech use affects sleep, but interestingly enough, sleep also affects tech use: When you’re sleep deprived, you spend more time aimlessly scrolling on Facebook, suggests 2016 research from the University of California, Irvine. The higher your sleep balance, the more time you can bank toward other important things—like being with the people you love, mastering your to-do list, or getting even more sleep. Hey, it couldn’t hurt.

Be strategic about your schedule

Look for classes that have later schedules or offer recorded video lectures so you can tune in anytime. Logging on from home? Choose to do so later in the morning or afternoon so you’re more likely to stay with it.

Learn to love the nap

Girl taking a nap on a couch

Studies show that students who take more naps do better in class. College students with GPAs of 3.5 and higher were much more likely to be nappers than were their peers with lower GPAs in a 2010 study in Sleep and Breathing. Just make sure you don’t snooze after 3 p.m., says Dr. Hershner. “That can throw off your nighttime sleep.”

Be consistent

According to Dr. Hershner, you want to try to prevent sleep debt by getting into good sleep habits—so it’s not great to fall back on the idea that you can make up all that lost sleep on the weekends. “Don’t sleep more than one to two hours longer on the weekend than you do during the week,” she says. “Say you sleep until 1 p.m. on Sunday—then it makes it hard for you to fall asleep by the time you need to get enough sleep for Monday. You’re already starting the week off behind.”

Keep your tech at arm’s length

The blue light emitted from your laptop or phone suppresses your levels of melatonin, a hormone that affects your circadian rhythms, says Harvard Health Publications. And that isn’t a good thing for your sleep. If you’re not going to unplug entirely, at least switch on your phone’s blue light filter and don’t hold it so close to you. “You want [your tech] as far from the face as possible,” says Dr. Hershner.

Use your computer after class and books before bed

Guy reading a book in bed

To cut out computer usage before bed, schedule your studying so you can get any computer work out of the way earlier in the evening and switch to books in the hour before bed. “If your reading is all online, print out a few chapters to read so you can shut off the computer,” says Dr. Hershner.

Track your Zs

“I have a Fitbit that tracks my sleep, so I know how much I get,” says Brandon B., a fourth-year graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Seeing the numbers helps me.” Dr. Hershner cautions that wearable trackers aren’t always accurate, but the idea behind tracking your sleep is solid if seeing your stats motivates you to stay on track. If you don’t use a wearable, explore other options that help you feel accomplished for getting a good night’s sleep, like keeping a sleep journal or using an app. We like Sleep Cycle alarm clock, and we think you might too.

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Flip your phone

Ironically enough, the more you worry about getting into sleep debt, the harder it might be for you to fall asleep. To avoid the anxiety, don’t keep a clock within view, says Dr. Hershner. Turn your alarm clock so it faces away from you and flip your phone over and put it on airplane mode when you go to sleep.

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Get in a Zen zone

Meditation can be “really good for helping people transition into sleep,” says Dr. Hershner. To help you keep a consistent sleep schedule, make your bed into a relaxing sleep oasis. And limit the activities that occur there to sleeping and snuggling. Close the books and download a meditation app to help quiet your mind before bed—just make sure you’re not taking the phone into your sleep zone.

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Article sources

Michael Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist; fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Los Angeles, California.

Shelley Hershner, MD, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic, University of Michigan.

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