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6 Tips For Getting Out of Sleep Debt


Sleep debt is the accumulating effects of shorting one’s self on sleep needs. This is a powerful way of looking at the amount of sleep one gets.

Here’s a personal story that may help illustrate the point.

I usually use a Zeo to track my sleep at night. I like the Zeo because it shows the amount of time I spend in the various stages of sleep, rather than counting just total hours of sleep. While getting 7-8 hours of sleep is important, and is usually the first focus when addressing sleep, the quality of one’s sleep is determined by the time spent in deep and REM sleep. The Zeo is able to track the stages of sleep because it measures brain activity during the night. The sensors on my Zeo stopped working, which is typical after 6 months of use, so I had to order new sensors. While I was waiting, I downloaded a simple app for my phone called SleepBot from the Android market. There were a few different apps I tried and didn’t like, so I settled on this one while I waited to get new Zeo sensors.

The SleepBot app had me set my target for total nightly sleep time, which I set at 7 ½ hours per night. When I was ready to sleep, I’d click on the “going to sleep” button and it was start counting my sleep time. If you have trouble falling asleep, the app won’t know you’re not actually sleeping, which the Zeo does do. During the work week, my alarm is set for 4:45 am. When I’d turn off the alarm, it would stop counting my sleep time. On weekends, I’d leave the alarm off, but would usually wake up at 5:00-5:30 am on my own. Upon waking, I’d check the box that I was awake and the SleepBot would stop counting my sleep time.

As you can see from the screen shot of the app on my phone, I slept for seven 7 hours, 26 minutes on Saturday night, the 20th of October. I fell four minutes short of the 7 ½ hour goal I set in the phone, and for the past 10 days, my total sleep debt was 33 minutes.

It’s this “Current Debt” number that really intrigued me. I was surprised by how much I wanted to see the number as a negative, meaning I was in a sleep surplus. Even though I’m almost always in bed by 9 pm, I found myself falling a little short on my sleep target There were a couple mornings I woke up extra early with stuff on my mind. You can see the result in my 10-day trend report, which is part of the apps functionality.

Even for me, with as much importance as I place on my sleep, there were some mornings where I fell short. Interestingly, two of the worst nights were Friday nights (shown as the Saturday measures to the right). On Friday the 12th, a group of us from work went out, and though I was home by 8:30, the fact that I had been out later than normal made it a lot harder to get to bed on time, which, as you can see, really shortened my sleep that night.

The Damaging Effects of Sleep Debt

It’s possible to get out of sleep debt by sleeping extra long on the weekends, or taking naps, but this extra sleep doesn’t negate the effects of consistently shorting one’s self of sleep on the other nights. Just a single night of shortened sleep can reduce physical and mental performance, make decrease one’s ability to manage blood sugar levels and increase cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods.

Long-term, the negative effects of sleep debt include reduced testosterone in men,[i] increased body weight, development of insulin resistance, decreased cognitive functioning, increased cortisol production and many other problems.

6 Tips for Getting Out of Sleep Debt

1. Track your sleep debt.

I’m really partial to the Zeo sleep tracker because of all the cool data it provides, but if you’re not into tracking all that, or if you don’t think you’d wear the headband to bed, just start with a simple tracker like the SleepBot, which is a free app. If you don’t have a smartphone to use such an app, get a pen and paper and write down the time when you go to bed and when you wake up.

Just as journaling the foods you eat changes the dietary choices you make, you’ll likely find the simple act of keeping track of your sleep will change the amount of sleep you get each night.

2. Go to bed at the same time every night.

If you wake up to an alarm on most mornings, you’ll likely wake up around the same time on the days you don’t need the alarm as well. Staying up late on the weekends and waking up around the same time is a great way to go into further sleep debt. There may be special occasions to stay up later than normal, but if you find yourself staying up just because you think you can, go to bed. Record a TV show and watch it the next morning. If you make it a habit to go to sleep at the same time each night, you’ll likely fall asleep faster as well. When you vary the time you go to bed, it’s easier to lie awake in bed, frustrated you can’t fall asleep.

3. Relax

When you’re still wired from the day, it’s difficult to wind things down and get to sleep. Are you focusing on work too late into the evening? Are you too engrossed in television shows to relax? Is it possible your evening workouts are waking you up too much to fall asleep? You may need to change some of your behaviors in the evening in order to get your body to relax at night.

If you’re not convinced that your evening habits affect your ability to sleep, try this out. For three days in a row, leave the lights off in your home. What you’ll notice is how early it gets dark. Because we live in so much artificial light, we forget when the natural light disappears. For those in the northern hemisphere, this time of year our days keep getting shorter. If you’re exposed to the dark at 7 pm, you probably won’t have any trouble falling asleep by 9 pm. If you have all the lights on in the house at 9 pm, it’ll be more difficult to fall asleep at 9:05.

You may find you need some nutritional support to help get your body to relax. Melatonin, 5-HTP and Relora are a few supplements we’ve found can be great supports for helping people to relax and fall asleep at night.

4. Avoid stimulants late in the day

Although some select individuals can drink a couple cups of coffee late at night and then go to bed, that’s a bad idea for most people. Even for those who can drink coffee and then go to sleep, they may be sacrificing the quality of their sleep by drinking caffeinated beverages late at night. Although there is not an ideal cutoff point, I try to avoid any stimulants after 3:00 myself. Each person metabolizes caffeine at different rates, so it’s difficult to suggest a specific time of the day to stop consuming stimulants. With some experimentation, you may be able to find what works best for you. Remember that you can always order a decaffeinated cup of coffee or espresso if you’re out to dinner.

5. Turn down the temperature in your bedroom

A cool bedroom can help improve sleep as well. When it’s too warm, it’s difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Turn down your thermostat or crack open a window.

6. Eliminate all light

Research has shown that even our skin cells respond to light, suggesting that artificial light can affect the way your body perceives the light and dark cycles each day. If you have electronic devices with small lights, or digital alarm clocks casting a faint hue in your bedroom, cover them up or turn them off. If street lights show through your blinds, consider buying curtains to black out the light.


Sleep is critical to your long-term health. If the above recommendations seem like they’re too much effort, or if you’re not convinced of the importance of sleep yet, check out the infographic below (created by, and then share your comments at the bottom.

By Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management


[i] University of Chicago Medical Center. Sleep loss lowers testosterone in healthy young men. EurekAlert! May 31 2011

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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Reader Comments (5)

Thanks, Tom! By simply tracking sleep patterns along with food intake, my clients have drawn connections time and time again of the positive impact that a quality sleep schedule has on food choices, meal timing, and weight loss. It's amazing to see how simple blackout curtains and an evening bath with lavender and epsom salts can promote sleep and therefore relieve stress, help shed pounds, and leave you looking more and more youthful. :)

Many years ago I read a study on sleep and dreams learning that sleep cycles typically are about 90 minutes for most people. I have paid fairly close attention to my own sleep cycles, noticing that they too are in the neighborhood of 90 minutes and have also learned that if I awaken on my own (without the alarm) I feel better and that it's easier to get out of bed than if I am abruptly jarred awake by the alarm. With this in mind, I now adjust my alarm depending on the time that I go to bed and expect to get to sleep in an effort to allow myself to awaken just before the alarm goes off, on my own, using 90 minute cycles. I have found that this surprisingly works and I am less tired on the days that I am successful.
Additionally, if you have issues with noisy neighbors or a snorer within hearing distance, simple earplugs work like a charm and, coupled with eye shades nothing short of an earthquake is going to keep you from your desired sleep. Beats taking a pill.

November 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul W

While the information provided is very useful to a majority of people, some of us work "screwy" shifts (eg, fire dept).

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole B

Here at my house I'm known as the "Sleep Gastapo." My kids always have to go to bed earlier than all their friends. I'm such a mean mom! But, they have noticed that they don't get sick nearly as often as their friends, and they don't have weight problems, partly because they aren't up late to get those cravings so many give-in to. (I'm also the Junk Food Gastaop). Unfortunately, our high school thinks it a good idea for the students to begin class at 7:13 a.m.! Sleep deprivation is big in this district. Most weekends the teens around here are trying to make-up for the lost sleep, but that plays havock when trying to return to the weekday schedule for most kids. One thing not mentioned in the article is the lack of sleep's effect on mood. Very important in family life! We aren't perfect here at our house, but we are generally happy... even my teens, Surliness increases as the quantity/quality of sleep goes down. Think about it parents!

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFawn Kieli

Thanks for all the great input! @Nicole B - flip-flopping between day shift and night shift is difficult to navigate. I've found it's best to try to stick to one pattern OR the other for the majority of the time. If you switch for only a day or two per week it's likely not as hard on you as if your schedule changed every other day. Trying to sleep in the daytime will require black-out shades, cool room temperature, relaxing environment, and possibly the use of melatonin and ear plugs. Meditation or deep breathing can also help with getting your body calmed down and ready for sleep during the day.

@Fawn Kieli - you are setting a good pattern of habits that your kids will thank you for one day. What a great example of helping them get the most out of a difficult learning environment - most studies I've seen do not suggest teens are ready to learn that early either (and I doubt they get the best out of their teachers either).

What else does everyone find helpful in maintaining good sleep habits?

November 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Kriegler, RD/LD

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