Level 4: All-Star
Welcome Players! Managing sleep for high-performance requires an in-depth understanding of how our body keeps track of its own rest. This article introduces the concept of Sleep Debt; the cumulative difference between the amount of sleep that is needed for optimal function and the actual amount of sleep you get over a period of time. Learning how to manage sleep debt gives you the ability to not only protect yourself against physical, mental, and emotional fatigue but also equips you with the tools to modify sleep in alignment with your lifestyle.
Paying Back Your Sleep Debt
Applying it to You
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Sleep is important.
One of the most important things you can do right up there with eating and breathing.
If you have any doubt on the measurable risks you are taking with lack of sleep, you should read this article first:
When you understand the importance of sleep you tend to value it more.
This means not sacrificing sleep for other things that you think are more important, because very few things actually are.
But understanding that sleep is important isn’t enough to actually get good sleep.
You have to know how to set up your sleep for success.
If you don’t already have good sleep habits, then you should read this article to build them:
Following those eight sleep keys will give you the best chance at a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep that leaves you feeling well-rested and energized when you wake up.
But let’s be honest. No matter how much you value your sleep and how great your sleep routines are - life still happens.
There are still things that become more important in the moment.
Obligations, responsibilities, social requests, and work demands are all a never-ending source of stress for getting the perfect nights sleep.
But they don’t have to be.
Learning about the importance of sleep and ways to build healthy sleepy habits is the first step to establishing your sleep rules.
What comes next is learning how to break those rules!
The way we do this is through a complete understanding of our Sleep Debt, which as you’ll learn, is how our body manages it’s chronic supply and demand of sleep.
Learning how to effectively manage your sleep debt, just like financial debt, will allow you freedom to make more choices on how to best manage your lifestyle without compromising performance.
Before I introduce sleep debt, we’ll go over the basics for every humans sleep needs. Then we’ll talk about how sleep debt is accumulated and how you can “pay it off”, before finally discussing how you can manage your sleep debt effectively to maintain performance in times of stress or uncertainty.
In this section we will go over the general sleep needs for humans - not your individual sleep needs.
It’s important to appropriately find your own specific sleep needs as it will vary from person to person and location to location.
There are two major attributes that matter most when talking about sleep:
The amount of quality sleep you achieve in a select quantity of sleep is termed your sleep efficiency:
Sleep efficiency: the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed. It is calculated by dividing the amount of time spent asleep (in minutes) by the total amount of time in bed (in minutes). A normal sleep efficiency is considered to be 85% or higher.1
There are a few concepts relating to how much sleep you should be getting that are important to put out front and in the open:
The amount of sleep required for optimal function changes throughout the lifespan
The amount of sleep required for optimal function varies from person to person
The amount of sleep required for optimal function is a function of energy needs, energy expenditure, lifestyle demands, and health
When talking about quantity of required sleep, we’re always going to be under the assumption that you are operating at a sleep debt of 0
If you have a sleep-disorder, you should address that first and foremost
The below graphic is from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
The first thing to note is that this is “recommended hours of sleep” not required, because as I stated before everyones needs may be different.
With that said we can operate on the assumption that most (97%) of people will fall within the bracket of recommended hours for the age group.
We can see quantity of sleep is most at the beginning of life where development is the greatest, and it slowly decreases throughout the lifespan and even moreso in old-age (not pictured).
In general, it is safe to assume that most normal adults need 8 hours of sleep.
Now let’s break down what that actually means.
“Most”, being practically everyone. There is a very very very very very small percentage of the population that have a lower physiological need of sleep.
I know there are many of you out there that only sleep 5 or 6 hours a night and think you’re operating at 100%. Chances are, you’re not.
Chances are, that you’re actually operating sub-optimally and have been for quite some time, and are now adapted to a ‘new normal’ feeling of low-energy. You’ve likely lost all sense of what it really feels like to be well-rested and full of natural energy.
So, chances are, you are not in the special category of people that don’t need their full allotment of sleep.
“Normal adults”, meaning us. We have responsibilities, obligations, family and friends. There are things that are probably more important to us than getting our necessary sleep.
“Need 8 hours”, as I’ve mentioned, this one is a bit tricky. The range research has come upon is between 7 to 9 hours, and we’ll get into more about how these numbers come about later on.
But if we take the average of humans in research, 8 hours is a great benchmark to shoot for if you don’t have the time or resources to identify your individual sleep needs.
So, most normal adults need 8 hours of sleep.
And let’s be clear: 8 hours of time in bed ≠ 8 hours of sleep.
Sleep latency, or sleep onset latency: is the time it takes a person to fall asleep after turning the lights out.2
So if you go to bed at 10pm, depending on how quickly it takes you to fall asleep, you could be asleep at 10:05p or as late as 10:30p. If you suffer from insomnia it can be until after 11p when you fall asleep!
So when determining your quantity of sleep, you HAVE to factor in the average time it takes you to fall asleep.
If you’re really trying to understand your needs on a deeper level you should also factor in the amount of times you wake up each night in addition to for how long you were likely awake.
If you are one of the deranged individuals who prefers to snooze their alarm every 5 minutes until they actually get out of bed, you should stop your sleep-timer when you first get woken up, not the extra 30 minutes you get from snoozing in 5-minute intervals.
For example: I know that it takes me between 5-15 minutes to fall asleep each night depending on my level of activity that day. I also get up on my first alarm, and wake up a couple of times a night for no longer than it takes to roll over each time. I actually factor in a 30-minute total between from when I went to bed to when I wake up to make sure if anything I’m underestimating my sleep vs. overestimating.
If I get into bed at 10p, and wake up at 6a, then I count it as getting 7.5 hours of sleep. The 30 minutes of being in bed that doesn’t count towards my total hours of sleep is spent falling asleep, waking up, or tossing & turning in the night.
The largest differentiator between people who KNOW they get enough sleep and those who THINK they get enough sleep is factoring in time in bed yet not asleep.
If you need 8 hours of sleep, then you better be in bed for longer than 8 hours if you are going to realistically expect yourself to get that amount of sleep!
Now that you have a better grasp on what our bodies actually need in terms of quantity of sleep, let’s see how quality plays into the equation.
Getting enough sleep is public enemy #1.
Getting enough good sleep is public enemy #2!
One major societal problem that is compounded by lack of sleep is that the sleep these people do manage to get - is of low-quality!
What determines the quality of sleep?
The presence/absence of sleep disorders
Subjective feelings during the day
Routine of sleep
Continuity of sleep
Stage make-up of sleep
In short, the goal is to strive for sleep that is largely uninterrupted throughout the night, maintains an unbroken sequence between each stage of sleep, is comprised of proportional NREM/REM sleep, leaves us feeling well-rested and alert during the day, and is consistent throughout our lives.
At any step of the way we can face disruptions to our sleep that not only effects the way we feel but the way we perform too.
The full in-depth discussion of each stage of sleep and its contribution to our nightly recharge is outside the scope of this article, but please read the referenced materials if you are interested in learning more.
We have two main categories of sleep, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM).
The easiest way to remember sleep is to know that the body cycles through 3 stages of NREM sleep, each growing progressively more intense (meaning deeper state of sleep) until finally entering REM sleep, which is where most of our dreaming occurs.
You a very likely to awake from noise/light in Stage 1 sleep and as such are very unlikely to awake from noise/light in Stage 4 sleep.
In general (there’s a lot of specificities to sleep!), it takes about 90m +/- to rotate through all the stages of sleep.
Depending on the individual (once again), the amount of cycles you have each night may vary, as well as the time spent in each stage.
Neither stage of sleep is more important than the other. Each has its respective value to the overnight restoration that sleep provides, but it is the occurrence of having both together in cyclical fashion the provides the greatest benefit!
This means that there is purpose to the cycle.
In research they completed studies where during overnight sleep lab measurements they would wake patients specifically as they were entering a certain stage of sleep. They found that while the negative impacts of interrupting each stage of sleep were different, there was always a negative impact associated with limiting a stage of sleep regardless of which stage it was.
One more argument to support the need for a complete night of uninterrupted sleep: to ensure that our body has had the chance to fully cycle through each stage of sleep appropriately.
Managing your sleep can be a lot like managing your finances, in both stimulation and effect.
Being careless with your budget will leave you tired, hungry, and irritable. And broke.
The only reprieve with your sleep is that a loan shark won't come after your knee-caps, but if you’re not careful you can do far more harm to yourself while underslept.
Sleep debt refers to the concept that for every X amount of time cut off of an optimal sleep period, the same amount of time will need to be “paid back” at some point in the future in order to return to optimal function.
Let’s get straight into an example as it will make things much more clear.
You have a sleep need of 8 hours per night. For the past three weeks you have been in bed for 8.5 hours a night and received your full 8 hours of sleep necessary to fill your personal needs. (AKA, a sleep debt of 0)
One day you find a leak in your bathroom after showering, and you stay up far later than you wanted addressing the leak. This night, you were only able to get 5 hours of sleep before having to get up for work.
In that example, you woke up with a 3-hour sleep deficit. Which means you are 3-hours underslept. This is now your “sleep debt”.
Just like Davey Jones, the waking body knows when it’s been cheated. You took 3 hours away from our beloved sleep, and now you must pay it back.
You can refuse, of course, but do so at your own peril. For every hour of mounting sleep debt the body inches closer and closer to disarray.
Every negative physical, mental, and emotional strain will continue to grow until the sleep debt is repaid. You can read about all the negative effects of lack of sleep here.
How much sleep debt can you go into before the collector comes knocking?
That’s a good question.
It is very difficult to come to an objective conclusion in research, but most sleep experts estimate a maximum sleep debt of 30-50 hours before the negative effects begin to plateau.
By this point your critical thinking, judgement, risk management, reaction time, and coordination are severely inhibited.
You are no more than a living breathing zombie that is fueled off adrenaline and cortisol. While you may be alive, you are certainly far from optimal and even further from your full potential.
Let’s return to our example and see what happens in the case of the minor sleep debt you’ve accumulated:
The night after the bathroom incident, you are back on your regular sleep routine and are in bed for 8.5 hours. Except this next night, you noticed you fell asleep as soon as your head hit the pillow and didn’t remember waking up once! Let’s assume you got slightly more sleep than your usual 8 because of this, and the extra 15 minutes means you got 8.25 hours of sleep (15m = 0.25h).
You wake up feeling well rested with a new sleep debt of 2.75 hours (3h sleep debt - 0.25h of EXTRA sleep). You see, the 8 hours of your sleep need doesn’t get any less just because you went into debt. Similar to paying interest on top of the principle of a loan, you have to fulfill your full sleep needs before starting to pay down your sleep debt.
At this rate of maintaining your normal routine, it would take you 12 days to pay down your full 3 hour sleep debt! (3h / 0.25h a night = 12).
That’s a week and a half of sub-optimal mental acuity and depressed mood, possibly even feeling tired and lethargic throughout the day.
That example is also assuming you are an absolute castle at defending your sleep from social and work obligations. We all know how hard it is to maintain the same sleep/wake times in one week, much less two!
For every night that you fall below your required sleep needs, you continue to pile on sleep debt. The more sleep debt you have, the greater the effects of being underslept. They scale almost exponentially until the 30h-50h of sleep debt mark as mentioned before, where the decreases in awareness and performance are so great that it’s hard to get any worse in a laboratory setting.
Just like running up a credit card bill, being careless with your sleep debt accumulation can leave you in a huge hole that’s very difficult to get out of.
Although the sleep bank doesn’t charge interest, it does require full payment 1:1, which means every hour of sleep taken from the bank needs to go back in, no exceptions.
For as much as science still doesn’t know about sleep, one of the most agreed upon factors for waking up feeling refreshed and well-rested is reducing the amount of sleep debt you have.
This means that you can have a perfect sleep routine, the perfect sleep environment, the perfect night’s sleep - and STILL wake up feeling groggy and tired!
Sleeping in on the weekends after an entire week of accumulating sleep debt does not afford your body the opportunity to eliminate its sleep debt, only lessen it. This waxing and waning of accumulating sleep debt during the week and re-paying only some of it during the weekend is a vicious cycle that leads to chronic accumulation of sleep debt and lethargy.
If you have been paying special attention to make sure you are optimizing your sleep routines and are still waking up not feeling well-rested, there is a very good chance you are still paying back a very large sleep debt that you were not aware you accumulated! (or you have an undiagnosed sleep disorder which should be addressed.)
Sleep debt also is currently the largest indicator of sleepiness during the day where individuals who have accumulated a large sleep debt feel most tired during the day when they should be feeling alert.
Paying Back Your Sleep Debt
Pay once now, or twice later.
This is the risk most people are making when they gamble with their sleep.
A dangerous game to be played considering that paying down your sleep debt is much harder than accumulating it.
Especially when you consider the fact that the Bank of Sleep (the human body) does not allow for bulk payments.
With a financial bank, If you borrow $1000, invest the money, make $2000, you can then simply just pay back your debt (+ interest) and be on your way. Nice!
Not so fast with the Bank of Sleep though. The human body limits your sleep deposits because it has many other functions to perform aside from usury.
Even if you had the time to pay off your now remaining 2.75h of sleep debt all in one night, it is unlikely your body would allow it!
You would likely fall asleep a tad bit quicker than usual (sleep latency), but you would also likely wake up at your normal routine time. You might try going back to sleep, but would probably just toss and turn, maybe catching a few extra minutes of sleep but none of it enough to get through a whole sleep cycle.
Remember, time in bed ≠ time asleep.
So you might be in bed for an extra hour, but only asleep for 15 minutes. That means your sleep debt was only reduced by another 0.25 hours, even though you were in bed for another hour!
The Bank of Sleep is very strict about the forms of payment it accepts, and that payment needs to be signed stamped and delivered, ASLEEP.
So now after two nights, you’re down to 2.5h of accumulated sleep debt. At this rate, you’re going to have a long couple of weeks paying down this debt!
So what’s the best way to repay sleep debt?
The same way it’s best to pay back financial debt: avoid going into it!
The second best way is from strategically-timed naps.
Don’t let society shame you away from naps.
Naps are good. Naps are great. Naps allow you to pay down your sleep debt in a timely, efficient manner when taken appropriately.
Naps are most effective thanks to one of the ways in which our body knows to keep itself awake: time-dependent alerting.
Time-Dependent Alerting: more commonly known as our Circadian Rhythm, many autonomic processes of the body are regulated in sync with exposure to sunlight and the earth’s rotation both around the sun and it’s individual axis.
Body-Dependent Altering: more commonly called homeostasis, this is the body’s insatiable need to operate at a sleep debt of 0. The more sleep debt you rack up, the greater your drive (need, want) for sleep becomes and the less you will be able to resist it.
Similar to sleep needs, everyone will have a slightly different circadian pattern that governs their body.
We are alert and awake when the sun rises
We have a small dip in alertness in the early afternoon
We begin to get sleepy when the sun sets
We have a small increase in alertness in the evening
The following image depicts this flow very well:
This graphic is a perfect visual of the two systems responsible for managing our sleep-wake cycle.
Process S is the body-dependent alerting, while Process C is time-dependent alerting.
We can see that for body-dependent alerting, the longer we’ve been awake the higher our need for sleep becomes. This is called sleep-pressure. Sleep pressure is like a miniature daily-version of sleep debt, and is a function of body-dependent alerting.
Sleep Pressure: the homeostatic drive to sleep that increases the longer we’ve been awake
The more of it we have, the stronger its effects become. A buildup of sleep pressure is what makes it possible to fall asleep in strange places like at your desk or when you sit down on the couch to watch TV. Or even worse, behind the wheel of a car.
Our circadian rhythm, or time-dependent alerting, runs off a separate signaling system driven by hormones and our exposure to light3. This is called our level of alertness, or how much our daily cycle of energy is driving us to be alert and active.
Between our level of alertness and sleep pressure, both things have a great impact on our ability to get a good nights sleep.
Ok, back to naps.
If we use that same image again, we can see a small dip in alertness level sometime around the early- to mid-afternoon. This is normal for most people as the alerting signal drops and sleep pressure builds.
While most people may attribute the afternoon slump to effects of eating a heavy lunch or being ready to leave work, it’s actually just part of being human. We naturally have a small lull.
How much that lull affects you, meanwhile, is fully within your control. If you have a massive (unpaid) sleep debt with a circadian rhythm that hasn’t been routine in years, your sleepiness might be much more severe at that time vs. somebody who is carrying a low sleep debt and has a regular sleep routine.
One very effective way to utilize napping to pay down your sleep debt (and start to feel better throughout the day) is by taking advantage of your own personal dip in alertness to sleep!
At this point you will have enough sleep pressure to fall asleep quickly, and the dip in your alerting signals will suppress your bodies desire to be awake during the day, thus affording you precious time to pay down your debt without affecting the ability to sleep at night.
Be careful though - napping too late in the day can make it difficult to fall asleep at night, and trying to nap too early in the day will mean lots of wasted time trying to fall asleep.
The key with using naps effectively is to first understand your sleep debt and bodies natural alertness levels throughout the day, and then to plan naps at a time when you are most likely to fall asleep and stay asleep with quality rest.
However it is you decide to pay down your sleep debt, what’s important is that you prioritize it in your life.
If you want to feel rested and refreshed after a night’s sleep, then you need to eliminate any sleep debt you’ve been unknowingly carrying with you. This can take time!
Applying it to You
Ok, so we understand the concept of sleep debt.
We can sacrifice some hours of sleep without detrimental effects to performance, but a buildup of that sleep debt over time leads to a mounting pressure that inhibits both mood and performance until addressed.
Coaches note: The specifics of how much sleep you can afford to sacrifice before seeing performance decrease were covered in prior articles. Please see the recommended reading in the opening section.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. How do YOU figure out your sleep debt and then pay it down so you can finally enjoy the sweet sweet relief of a good nights sleep.
Measuring Your Sleep Debt
I am going to cover three ways to figure out your own sleep debt. Each has their pro’s and con’s, and you will need to first work to understand the information before beginning to apply it.
Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT)
Epworth Sleepiness Scale
Metal Spoon Test
Multiple Sleep Latency Test
The MSLT screens for excessive daytime sleepiness by measuring how quickly you fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day. This is the most accurate way to gauge daytime sleepiness, but also the most intrusive and effort-demanding.
It is performed under supervision in a sleep lab, ideally after an overnight sleep study. It is also most effective at determining sleep debt when the test is performed consecutively multiple days in a row.
After a full nights sleep, you take five scheduled naps two hours apart on even intervals. Using EMG connected to sensors on your head the sleep specialist will be able to identify exactly how long it took you to fall asleep during each nap trial.
Your sleep debt can be determined because we know how long it should take you to fall asleep depending on your daytime sleepiness.
The following is a general guideline for scoring the MSLT and it’s relation to sleep debt, taken from The Promise of Sleep, by Will Dement:4
If you fall asleep in:
1-5 minutes: Severely sleep deprived, quite possibly due to a sleep disorder like apnea or insomnia. People with untreated narcolepsy score in this range.
5-10 minutes: Definitely troublesome. You are likely to feel low energy during dips in the circadian rhythm, or when you are driving or at rest.
10-15 minutes: You have a manageable amount of sleep debt, but you could feel some improvements by working it off.
15-20 minutes: You have little or no sleep debt, or are taking the test at a time of peak alerting.
He notes that these scores should be the average results of multiple tests! Not just one nap on one day. Remember, the test is completed with five scheduled naps two hours apart. Be careful not to extrapolate one snooze to your entire sleep debt.
The pro’s of the MSLT is that when it’s done properly it provides the most accurate representation of sleep debt. The con’s are that it’s time- and resource-intensive, and most people will not be afforded the opportunity to do it properly unless suffering from a severe sleep disorder.
Epworth Sleepineess Scale
The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is one of the most practical ways to estimate your sleep debt, although it is not as accurate as the MSLT.
It is a series of questions that asks in your current, usual way of life, how likely are you to nod off or fall asleep in the following situations, in contrast to feeling just tired?
Based on your your self-reported scores, the following are how you could interpret your results, once again referencing Will Dement in The Promise of Sleep:
0-5: Slight or no sleep debt
6-10: Moderate sleep debt
11-20: Heavy sleep debt
21-25: Extreme sleep debt
The current interpretation in the research is below, although I prefer Dement’s version.
0-7: It is unlikely that you are abnormally sleepy.
8-9: You have an average amount of daytime sleepiness.
10-15: You may be excessively sleepy depending on the situation. You may want to consider seeking medical attention.
16-24: You are excessively sleepy and should consider seeking medical attention.
You’ll notice the results are extremely subjective, along with the MSLT even though that is more accurate.
There is no exact way to determine an objective number of hours of sleep debt you are carrying.
These tests are designed for you to get an idea of how behind you are so that you can make an informed decision on how to prioritize sleep in your life.
Carrying heavy or extreme sleep debt should move sleep to priority #1 in your lifestyle, whereas slight or moderate sleep debt leaves you some room to maneuver obligations.
Metal Spoon Test
Unofficially named, the metal spoon test is a non-laboratory setting derivation of the MSLT. It requires no equipment and is rather straightforward.
Following the same protocol of the MSLT of taking scheduled naps two hours apart, you simply lie down at your time of rest while lightly holding a metal spoon between your forefinger and thumb. Underneath your hand, on the floor, leave a metal plate or piece of cookware.
Make note of the time when you get into position and rest your eyes, and allow yourself to fall asleep. When you’ve dozed off sufficiently to a point where your physical body relaxes and ceases muscular tension, as occurs during the transition to sleep, you will lose hold of the metal spoon sending it clanking onto the plate below.
When you’re awakened by the sound, check the time again, and the difference is your sleep latency.
If you don’t wake up from the sound, the results are rather straightforward: you are severely sleep deprived and should elevate reducing your sleep debt to high priority.
Otherwise, use the same scoring system from the MSLT to determine the severity of your sleep debt.
Measuring Sleep Need
Now that you have an idea of your sleep debt, the only other thing you need before embarking on your journey to restore your sleep is figuring out how much sleep YOU need to perform at your best.
Similar to measuring sleep debt, finding your sleep needs is more of an estimation than a definitive answer.
There are only two main ways to figure out your sleep needs, both rather straightforward:
Slowly increase your sleep quantity until your daytime sleepiness reduces and alertness levels peak
Completely eliminate your sleep debt and then pay attention to at what point your performance drops when returning to back to normal
Increasing Sleep Quantity to Meet Needs
The goal of this method is to find out how much sleep it takes to keep your sleep tendency constant over several days, where you are feeling alert and energized throughout the day.
You start with an assumption of however much sleep you think you need. Let’s say you believe you need 7.5 hours of sleep per night. Being sure to factor in for the time it takes to fall asleep as well as awakenings throughout the night, you schedule your sleep/wake cycle to allow for 7.5 hours of sleep.
Sleep latency: 15m. Awakenings throughout the night: 15m.
Goal of 7.5 hours of sleep. Wake-up time of 7am.
With this information that means you set your bed time at 11pm = 8 hours in bed, 7.5 hours asleep.
Using this schedule you pay careful attention to how you feel throughout the day over multiple days; are you energized and alert throughout the day? Do you feel lulls at certain times?
You can use the Stanford Sleepiness Scale to quantify your sleepiness at determined intervals or different points throughout the day. It is also helpful to keep a journal of your subjective sleepiness feelings in different situations.
You can also use the scores from your MSLT, Metal Spoon Test, or Epworth Sleepiness Scale to provide more information as to your sleepiness in the current schedule.
With this set-up, the routine is now simple.
If you are scoring high (= more sleepy) or are subjectively feeling sleepy throughout the day with your pre-determined amount of sleep (7.5h in our example), then after a few days of testing you add some sleep to your schedule!
So in our example you would then add 30m of sleep to your schedule to get to a total sleep need of 8 hours and adjust your bed-time/wake-up time accordingly.
You then repeat the process of scoring your sleep and subjective feelings, adding sleep time as necessary until you find your balance point of how much sleep you need to maintain energy and alertness throughout the day.
The above method only works if you are operating at a sleep debt of 0!!!!
I’ll repeat. The above method only works if you are operating at a sleep debt of 0.
If you are carrying a large, or any significant sleep debt, you will not be able to accurately estimate your sleep needs until you have eliminated your sleep debt.
For this reason, it is often suggested that most people skip to the second way to estimate their sleep needs by eliminating their sleep debt AND determining their sleep needs in one fell swoop.
This method requires a level of commitment, planning, and defensive time-management.
As coined by Will Dement (credit where credit is due, and I’m a big fan of his work and mission to promote healthy and sustainable sleep), Sleep Camp is a structured sleep-replenishment program that is designed to completely eliminate even the most severe sleep debt in individuals over the course of multiple weeks.
The concept is quite simple:
You pick a time period where you either have autonomy over your time, or have just committed to prioritizing sleep over all other activities.
That means social obligations, work obligations, even fun obligations.
During this time period, Sleep is King (or Queen).
You essentially sleep as much as your body affords each night; take naps when you feel sleepy during the day, abstain from substances that would affect sleepiness or alertness (stimulants, caffeine, marijuana, etc), and consciously note and track the changes using a sleep journal and the various resources in this article.
You also use this time period to establish positive and sustainable sleep habits that will last for, hopefully, the rest of your life once your sleep camp concludes.
Of course life will throw curveballs and you will sacrifice sleep in one form or another, and you may have to repeat Sleep Camp again when these disturbances arise and you’re not able to manage them effectively.
But one positive of this approach that cannot be understated is the benefit of educating and experiencing full unencumbered restorative sleep at a time in your life where you are fully aware and cognizant of the results.
By making sleep priority number 1 over the course of multiple weeks, including naps, rebuilding your sleep routines, you will be paying off your sleep debt as quickly as your body allows.
For those with a smaller sleep debt, Sleep Camp will be shorter. For many of you who carry a very large sleep debt, Sleep Camp can last upwards of a month. It is also highly dependent on how committed you are to the rules of camp.
If you are able to reduce your sleep debt by 3 hours over the course of the week, and then on one night decide to go out late and drink with friends, by staying up late and consuming alcohol (which we know has a severe negative effect on quality and quantity of sleep), you have just not only erased your hard work during the week but also possibly added even more sleep debt to your balance sheet!
The human body certainly has a powerful way of holding us accountable.
There are no shortcuts, no magic pills, no hacks or tricks to cheat your way to a better sleep.
All sleep debt must be repaid 1:1.
If you are interested in a more structured regime for completing your own Sleep Camp (I have only touched on the concept and principles), you can reference Will Dement’s The Promise of Sleep which contains a more thorough guide and plan.
Sleep is the one of the most important factors that has a potential to supercharge your mood and energy levels throughout the day - or destroy them.
It can be restorative, delightful, and something you look forward to at the end of a fulfilling day.
But, it does not come easy.
Sleep owes you nothing. It is not a right you are born with. It is a privilege that must be earned through prioritization and habitual consistency.
Once you arm yourself with the understanding of the rules of sleep you will be able to build sleep habits that work for your goals & lifestyle. Just as importantly, once you know how to establish good sleep habits you’ll be able to bend the rules when necessary in order to meet the demands of life and frankly, to enjoy it to the fullest.
But breaking the rules without understanding the intricacies of their effects is a recipe for disaster.
Most people go about their lives while carrying large amounts of sleep debt that severely impact how they feel, think, and live. They have lost all perspective of what it feels like to get a restful nights sleep and awaken feeling energized, refreshed and alert. They have forgotten what it’s like to have enough energy to give to work, exercise, AND social activities without burning out.
They limp from obligation to obligation by abusing stimulants such as caffeine, and when it gets worse abuse sleep aids to force themselves into slumber that fails to address any of their core problems. This vicious cycle can repeat for years, or even decades for some people without ever knowing the root cause of their suffering.
I don’t want to make it seem easy to fix your sleep habits and enter the world of vitality.
It is not.
It requires a lot of effort. Both in that you must educate yourself on sleep (which if you’re reading this you’ve gotten most of the way there), and you must learn how to defend your sleep with ferocity.
Protect your sleep from those that would encroach upon it with reckless abandon.
Late dinners, poorly-timed alcohol consumption, unnecessary obligations either too early or too late in the day. The list could go on forever. If corporate America had it’s way, you wouldn’t be sleeping at all!
You must defend your health and well-being from these attacks. Without proper sleep it will be impossible to fulfill your potential physically, mentally, and emotionally.
And once you learn how to prioritize your sleep, you will be all the more capable of knowing how and when to break your own rules.
After all, what good is life if we’re not able to enjoy it?
"Eat at a local restaurant tonight. Get the cream sauce. Have a cold pint at 4 o’clock in a mostly empty bar. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Listen to someone you think may have nothing in common with you. Order the steak rare. Eat an oyster. Have a negroni. Have two. Be open to a world where you may not understand or agree with the person next to you, but have a drink with them anyways. Eat slowly. Tip your server. Check in on your friends. Check in on yourself. Enjoy the ride."
- Anthony Bourdain
Yes, I believe it is incredibly important to prioritize your health and well-being.
But I also believe that we are given the greatest opportunity on earth to be able to live life to the fullest.
Sleep should be viewed as a way to accomplish that - not prevent it.
By giving more to yourself you will be able to give more to others. Your mood, energy, and vigor will support you in all your adventures. You will know how to stay out late and enjoy the night with your loved ones and how to make sure that enjoyment doesn’t inhibit your physical and mental health.
This is the power of sleep, and it is a power that each and every one of us are capable of manifesting.
May your renewed sleep serve you well!
Have a question? Want to share your experience with us so others can learn too?
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. The content is purely educational in nature and should be filtered through ones own lens of common sense and applicability.
This is an extremely, extremely simplified accounting of circadian rhythm