When I was young I was a good saver. Every week I’d deposit most of the money I’d earned from my part-time job washing dishes, into my bank account. After a couple of years, I had enough saved for driving lessons, a second-hand car and even the insurance. It was a good thing I’d saved because no bank would want to lend that kind of money to a 17-year-old without a reliable income.
Sleep is similar, we can make deposits that will benefit us in the future but if we go overdrawn there’s a penalty. A common myth is that lost sleep during the week can be made up at the weekend. Sadly, sleep researchers tell us this is not the case. Sleep debt, like financial debt, is cumulative. In the same way that making the minimum monthly payment on the credit card statement still leaves you owing money next month. An extra 2 hours in bed on Sunday doesn’t make up for the lost hour every night of the preceding week.
Throw international travel into the mix alongside a few early starts and late nights and you’ve created a perilous cocktail, which unlike alcohol doesn’t clear the system the next day. Scarily, there are some similarities between the sleep-deprived and alcoholics. At first, short nights make us feel groggy, we are conscious that we are not ourselves and we are uncomfortable with our impaired state of mind. The longer we go on getting less than 6 hours sleep each night (or drinking excessively for the alcoholic), the more we adapt to accommodate our inefficiency. We learn to disguise our fatigue, using caffeine, makeup and absorbing stress to boost our adrenalin levels, very often believing we ‘don’t need much sleep’.
Medicine says otherwise. The risks of succumbing to all of these health conditions have been connected to inadequate sleep over the preceding years:
- Heart attack
- Car accident
- Breast, ovarian and prostate cancer
- Weakened immunity
- Poor skin condition
- Emotional imbalance
There’s also some good news. Like my young savers’ account, if we make regular deposits now we can reap the benefit in the future. Let’s say that a week from now you have to fly across three time zones to give a presentation. You know you tend to sleep badly the night before you present, you also know that you’ll need to catch an early flight to go to give the presentation. You are able to estimate that by the morning of the presentation you will have accumulated a sleep debt of 6 hours. We also know that this combined with the fact that your body clock will not have adjusted to the new time zone will impair your thinking as much as drinking half a bottle of wine leading up to your speech!
To be sharp and clear-headed you need to bank that 6 hours of lost sleep in advance. To achieve this, simply go to bed an hour earlier each night for the next 6 nights. Not only will your sleep account be in credit, the fact you know this will reduce your anxiety in the build-up, which will also aid better sleep.
Over the longer term, we should aim to get sufficient sleep every night so that we don’t feel tired the following day (without caffeine) and can wake naturally without needing an alarm. Only by taking our sleep this seriously will we lessen our chances of facing the ailments listed above.