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Sleep: Our Neglected National Debt

Written by Gregory Hirshman

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   While today’s media focuses on our national financial debt, it rarely mentions another national debt with serious implications for our society.  Every year, sleep debt costs Americans $15 billion in healthcare expenses and $50 billion in lost productivity.  Americans sleep an hour per day less than they did a generation ago, and half of people between the age of 18 and 34 admit that sleepiness interferes with their daily work, yet the public is largely unaware of the problem and of the mental and physical ailments caused by the failure to get sufficient sleep on a regular basis.  It is thus important for us to learn about what sleep debt is, how it adversely affects individuals and society, and how we can eliminate it.

    A person incurs sleep debt when he or she fails to obtain sufficient sleep over an extended period of time.  Although individual requirements may vary greatly, the average adult American needs about eight hours of sleep per night.  Currently, Americans average only 6.9 hours per night during the week and 7.5 hours per night on weekends.  On average, they accumulate nearly an hour of sleep debt per day, or about two weeks of sleep debt per year.

    People with large sleep debts suffer from a deterioration in alertness and physical and mental performance.  They are likely to feel gloomy and depressed and to be less active and less motivated.  As sleep debt increases, reaction times slow, with potentially lethal consequences for drivers and laborers.  People with sleep debt may experience visual distortions and even see things which are not there.  Their quality of life diminishes, as their immune systems weaken and they become more likely to get sick.

    Sleep debt is a major problem for society as well as for the individual.  It results in billions of dollars of lost productivity each year in the United States.  In addition, about 100,000 car accidents every year are caused by sleepiness, causing thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.  Sleep debt also harms society in more subtle ways.  Individuals with large sleep debts are likely to be less active and are prone to overeat, so they may become obese and so have an increased likelihood of developing heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and weakened immune systems.  Other members of society must pay higher insurance premiums and taxes to cover the resulting medical bills.

    How can we eliminate sleep debt?  The best way is simply to get more sleep on a regular basis.  If you accumulate sleep debt for a week or two, an extra hour or two of sleep per night for a few nights will likely be sufficient to eliminate it.  If your sleep debt has built up for months, you should consider taking a relaxing vacation and sleeping without using an alarm clock.  At first, you might sleep twelve hours or more per night, but within a few days you will begin to sleep for a more normal length of time, and you will have taken a great step toward “repaying” your debt.  The key then is to avoid falling back into the habits which originally produced your sleep debt.

    There are several techniques you can use to avoid backsliding.  The first is to establish a regular sleep schedule.  People who try to go to sleep at different hours on different days often find it difficult to fall asleep.  They may spend a long time in bed, but they usually do not obtain a good night’s sleep.  The second technique is to avoid taking long naps.  An ideal nap should be taken during the middle of the day and last only 15 minutes.  Longer naps may feel relaxing, but they make it more difficult to sleep continuously through the subsequent night, and six continuous hours of deep sleep can often be better than eight hours of interrupted sleep.  The third technique is to keep a sleep diary.  Keeping track of the amount of time you spend napping and sleeping and of how drowsy or alert you feel during the day will help you develop the sleep routine that is best for you.  People may develop sleep debt without being aware of it, but a sleep journal will help prevent this.

    Most of us spend about one third of our lives asleep, but we know remarkably little about sleep debt, how serious it is, and how to eliminate it.  The media focuses on our financial debt, but it rarely mentions sleep debt, even though it costs us billions of dollars and thousands of lives every year.  Sleep debt will not disappear on its own.  A clear understanding of the problem and concerted action are necessary if we want to avoid its serious long term consequences.

List of Sources

Dement, William C. The Stanford Sleep Book. N.p.: n.p., 2006.
Harvard's Women Health Watch. "Repaying your sleep debt." Harvard's Women Health
     Watch 14.11 (2007): 1-3. 22 Jan. 2009 <
Kamdar, Biren B., et al. "The impact of extended sleep on daytime alertness,
     vigilance, and mood." Sleep Medicine 5.5 (2004): 441-448. 24 Jan. 2009
Lovgren, Stefan. U.S. Racking Up Huge "Sleep Debt." 22 Jan. 2009
National Sleep Foundation. Students are Falling Deeply in Debt - Sleep Debt That
     Is! 20 Jan. 2009 <
Pa Van Dongen, Hans, Naomi L. Rogers, and David F. Dinges. "Sleep debt:
     Theoretical and empirical issues." Sleep & Biological Rhythms 1.1 (2003):
     5-13. 21 Jan. 2009 <
Sleepdex. Sleep Deprivation. 23 Jan. 2009 <>.
Ullman, Kurt. AANP: Sleep Debt Can Bankrupt Mind and Body, But the Account Can
     Be Replenished. 19 Jan. 2009 <>.
Webster, Molly. Can You Catch Up on Lost Sleep? 24 Jan. 2009


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