Why am I so tried all the time? Sleep debt and the dangers it poses.

Chronic insomnia and the dangers of sleep debt.When we lose a little sleep here and there, we often don’t think much of it.  A late night at a party or an early morning rise for work or travel are just part of everyday life. And missing a bit of sleep here and there can’t really be making you so tired can it?

This missing sleep is called sleep debt.  Like any sort of debt it’s not a good thing and it’s what we’re going to look at in this article.

Other reasons for chronic tiredness can be found in the article in the link.

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is simply the lost hours of sleep that can build up over time.

Sleep is a biological force, like hunger or thirst and most people need 7-8 hours’ sleep each night. Lost sleep needs to be repaid to the body otherwise it can play havoc with our health.

If we have a late night or an early morning and catch up with that lost sleep during a sleep-in at the weekend, the sleep debt is paid off. But when a lot of late nights and/or a lot of early mornings creep up on us, perhaps as feature of managing a new job or having a baby, this creates more of a problem.

Missing sleep can also happen when you’re not aware of it, because of another sleep or health problem such as night terrors or sleep apnea.

What are the symptoms of sleep debt?

The most common effect of sleep debt is to make you feel tired and sleepy a lot of the time. That’s probably why you’re reading this article.

Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling low in energy
  • Feeling emotional – snappy, frustrated, tearful
  • Yawning a lot or rubbing your eyes during the day
  • Needing a constant ‘lift’ from a caffeinated drink
  • Feeling generally unwell
  • Feeling down or depressed
  • Infections or other physical illness. Lack of sleep can affect our immune system.
  • In extreme cases total physical collapse can occur.

What tests will the doctor do for sleep debt?

Talking to your doctor about your symptoms may lead him/her to think of some other conditions, and lack of sleep may not be the first diagnosis.  Look here for other reasons for tiredness.

If you suspect that lack of sleep is causing your problems then say this to the doctor.  You can also keep a sleep diary.  This will help you and your doctor.

What is the treatment for sleep debt?

The first thing to do is pinpoint the reason(s) you’re losing sleep.  Could it be that:

  • You may have already searched this site and others for how to manage insomnia.  If not then click the link and set aside some time to read the articles in this section.
  • You have a new job or lifestyle change that means you go to sleep late and/or get up early, this can cut short the 8 hours that you probably need.
  • You have a new baby who is not sleeping well?  Click here for tips to help baby sleep better so that you can too.
  • Do you have the symptoms of sleep apnea?  You may feel that you sleep well and get 8 hours a night but sleep apnea causes a person to wake over and over during the night.  These wakenings are so brief that you don’t realise you’re awake.  This means the quality of your sleep is poor throughout the night.
  • If none of these really ‘click’ with you, try the sleep journal that we mentioned above.  Do this by making a note of when you go to bed, roughly when you fall asleep, any wakenings in the night, and what time you wake up in the morning.  During the day, note how alert you feel,on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is very sleepy and 10 is really awake.
  • In this sleep journal you may find it useful to write down any worries that trouble you during the day.

Paying off the sleep debt by increasing the amount of time that you sleep is the only way to cure the problem.  That’s often easier said than done and may take some time and experimentation.

We urge you to look closely at the articles on this site to find a way to help you sleep better and therefore enjoy a better quality of life.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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