Sleep Debt

Maybe you have never heard this term before, but it is real and in some sense worse than financial debt. Sleep deprivation is a big problem in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that sleep deprivation is responsible for as many as 1,500 people dying every year, 12 billion dollars of property and productivity loss, and over 71,000 injuries. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that approximately 70 million people in the United States are affected by a sleep problem. About 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, and an additional 20-30 million are affected by intermittent sleep-related problems. They also estimate that sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are costing Americans over 100 billion dollars annually in-lost productivity, medical expenses, sick leave, and property and environmental damage.


Houston, we have a problem. Research and polls tell us that most Americans are not getting as much sleep, as they need. We experience sleep debt when we do not get the amount of sleep our bodies require. The average adult needs about eight hours, and some polls show that the most they are getting is 6.9 hours. The average teenager needs 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep every night, and you know that not all our teenagers are getting that much sleep. Kids between the ages of five and twelve need between ten and eleven hours of sleep every night.

When we do not get enough sleep, we can suffer from a host of problems including moodiness, sleepiness, drowsiness at work and school, headaches, nausea, weight loss or gain, aching muscles, lack of energy, cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune system, and depression. Sleep is every bit as important as diet and exercise.

Once you acquire sleep debt, it is very difficult to pay it back. Our busy schedules and lifestyles make it difficult to get the rest we need. Dr. Mark Pascual claims that no one in the United States gets enough sleep. “It’s by nature of what we do—there is too much to do.” If you are supposed to sleep eight hours last night and only get 6.5, you are 1.5 in the hole. When are you going to make that up? Let us go a step further. Have you ever heard anyone planning, on a consistent basis, to make up for lost sleep? Think of all the sleep debt we have racked up. The sleep experts say a new mother typically experiences as much as 400-700 hours of lost sleep in her first year of parenting. That is a lot of sleep to make up.

So, other than busyness, what keeps us from sleeping? Stress is the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties, according to sleep experts. But another factor is our failure to make sleeping enough a non-negotiable priority and part of our lives. We need to take sleeping seriously and take steps to get the sleep we require. It is sad to see how children have learned from their parents to operate on an insufficient amount of sleep. Parents need to be more disciplined and see to it that their children get their sleep. How many children are grumpy because they are operating on a massive sleep debt? Sleep is a discipline that all of us need to master. If you are going to get a proper amount of sleep in this age, you will have to learn to say no to opportunities and mean it.

Some people have serious problems sleeping, and it is not a matter of choice and discipline. They have a physiological or medical problem that may or may not have an answer. If that is your situation, and you can get medical attention, you should. For the rest of us, we need to take sleep seriously and make sure we are getting what we need.


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