The Myth about Accumulating and Repaying Your Sleep Debt

16.07.2019 |

Episode #5 of the course Sleep hacks: Using science to improve your sleep by John Robin


Welcome to Day 5 and our fifth sleep hack!

I hope that in the last few days, you’ve been paying more attention to how you sleep, especially those fourth and fifth sleep cycles where you draw deeper on your REM well. Sleep is an art and a practice. Embracing this mindset is key to sleeping better and unleashing a whole universe of health and improved productivity in your life—but we’ll get more into that in the days to come.

Today, we’re going to pick up where we left off: sleep debt.


The Typical Modern Lifestyle

There’s a good chance that your week looks a bit like this:

• Monday: Get up at 6 a.m., go go go go go until 12 a.m., then go to bed.

• Tuesday-Friday: Repeat.

• Saturday: Sleep in.

• Sunday: Catch up on more sleep.

• Sunday evening: Go to bed late because you’re all caught up now for another week.

This pattern is not the result of healthy living. It is the result of post-industrial society twisting our routine (and psychology) around it. With the advent of factories and shift work, especially after the Second Industrial Revolution in the 1870s onward, the clock became the slave driver of human living.

Studies on productivity have shown that, in fact, our ability to do our most effective work is limited to four to five hours a day. While we can keep going thanks to adrenaline and caffeine, this is at the cost of being properly rested for optimal function.

So, we’re left with the question: If you can’t get enough sleep every night and if you can’t nap during the day, can you make up for it later?

The answer, according to science, is no.

The studies and analyses reveal that even after just a few days of sleep debt, you activate a special cluster of brain cells, called orexin-producing neurons. There are 10,000 to 20,000 of these in your brain, found in the regions called the perifornical area and the lateral hypothalamus. These neurons communicate using a neurotransmitter called orexin, which stimulates wakefulness.

When you build up a sleep debt, this circuit of orexin-producing neurons kicks into overdrive, raising body temperature and increasing energy expenditure. With this comes a whole host of survival-based responses, such as increased adrenaline, allowing you to operate around sleep fatigue. You’re effectively sweeping dirt under the rug.

“I’m damaged, please repair me,” your numerous body cells might say.

Instead, all you hear is, “Gotta keep moving.”

Faulty brain function, sleepiness, poor concentration, feeling terrible in the afternoon, having big headaches—these all just masquerade as the woes of life, rather than your brain screaming at you, “I’m full of waste products and scattered connections and need to reset!”

In short, sleep debt kicks you into a vicious cycle. You sleep lighter because of this overdrive, and you get more tired the next day, further aggravating the orexin-producing neurons.

That long catch-up sleep on Saturday won’t shut this down. Even the long sleep on Sunday is only beginning to shift the gears down on this system, but then Monday comes, and it goes right back into overdrive. Tuesday through Friday’s sleep debt only further exacerbates the orexin-producing system.

It takes several days to shut this orexin-producing system down fully and restore the body to a proper resting state. But even so, it’s a social norm for us all to just power through, not even realizing what it might feel like to be rested.

To all this, don’t say, “Thank you, Industrial Revolution.” Instead, start asking, “How will I start my own personal sleep revolution?”

There’s some good news in all this: You can get by now and then with bad sleep if in general, you keep your REM well full. Occasionally, I have to be up early and I’ll have a four-hour sleep. I have no problem with this if I’ve had four to six nights in a row of full sleep, since my orexin-producing neurons are shut down, and that one day isn’t enough to fire them up into full gear. (But be careful: This permission can be a slippery slope.)

The point of today’s hack is: Sleep debt only builds more sleep debt. Topping it up reduces it a bit, but you remain in debt because your body learns that always being in debt is the norm, and chronic stress is part of that norm, wreaking havoc all over your body’s cells (often in ways invisible to you in the short term).

This leads us to another natural question, which will be our gateway to tomorrow’s lesson: What if you just can’t shut it down and get the rest you need?


Recommended book

The Sleep Book by Dr. Guy Meadows


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