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Stay out of sleep debt

A tired woman holds a hand to her head.

July 11, 2022—You know how it feels when you don't get enough sleep for a few nights. You get cranky. You can't focus. You may find yourself nodding off during the day. In general, you feel, well, blah.

No problem, you think. You'll catch up on the weekend.

The problem, though, is that studies show you can't make up for that "sleep debt" with extra sleep over just two or three days.

Sleeping less at night affects our days

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. say they don't get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you're probably getting insufficient sleep if you:

  • Stay in bed less than eight hours.
  • Don't feel refreshed and alert when you wake up.
  • Feel ready to doze off while reading, watching TV or sitting in a classroom.
  • Can't focus, have lower energy levels, or are distracted or irritable.

Why sleep is important

In short, your body and your brain need sleep. According to the NIH, sleep helps:

  • Create new brain pathways to help you learn and remember information.
  • Heal and repair heart and blood vessels.
  • Balance hormones that make you feel hungry or full, as well as stabilize blood sugar levels.
  • Build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues.
  • Improve your ability to pay attention, solve problems and be creative.

What else happens when you don't get enough sleep?

Sleep deprivation can be dangerous.

Sleepiness can affect your driving ability more than being drunk. The NIH reports that it is linked to 100,000 car accidents each year, including 1,500 deaths.

Other mental side effects include mood swings, lack of motivation, depression, suicidal thoughts and risk-taking behavior.

Plus, ongoing sleep deficits are linked to serious health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and stroke. And your body's ability to fight off germs can be decreased.

Ways to get more sleep

Go to bed early enough to get in seven to nine hours of sleep. A regular sleep schedule makes it easier to fall asleep and awake refreshed. Lose sleep one night? Consider turning in early the next evening.

Create a nightly routine. About 30 to 60 minutes before you go to sleep, start winding down and relaxing. Lower the lights, take a warm bath, or do gentle stretching exercises or other relaxing activities to slow down your brain.

Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks or foods, like chocolate, too close to bedtime.

Limit screen time while in bed. Choose a blue-light-blocking mode, if possible. That'll help your brain know it's not bright daytime.

Make your bedroom a sleep haven. Block out extra lights from windows, devices and power cords. Curtains, ear plugs and white noise can help reduce external noises.

Want to learn how much sleep you need at any age? Check out our Sleep needs infographic.

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