The Effects of Chronic Sleep Deprivation: Why We Shouldn’t Run a Sleep Debt

by Tamzin Birch

Written by Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych.

Most of us have probably heard the saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” This phrase is typically used by those who are living busy lives and are proud of themselves for continuing to hustle. They often prioritize getting ahead in life over the detrimental effects of lack of sleep. Sometimes this phrase is turned into a word of advice, “You can sleep when you’re dead” – but this type of advice could actually be deadly. Here we are going to discuss the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.

Many of us think we can get away with less and less sleep – and we certainly can, for a few days or even a few weeks. However, when we go extended periods without catching up on our sleep, there’s a detrimental impact on our physical and emotional health. 

Sleep is an essential part of our ability to function. During sleep, our body physiologically heals itself and restores its chemical and hormonal balance. Our brain forges new connections and this helps with memory retention. Sleep isn’t a luxury and each time we don’t get enough sleep we are racking up our sleep debt.

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt, or chronically running a sleep deficit, is the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep.

People often use the phrase sleep debt to make a comparison to banking. When we don’t get enough sleep, our sleep account becomes overdrawn and we’re required to attempt to make it up. The more sleep debt we accumulate, the more challenging it becomes to repay.

According to one study, it can take four days to fully recover from one hour of lost sleep.

Unfortunately, even though we often refer to it as sleep debt, sleep doesn’t actually work as a bank does. We aren’t able to store up sleep surplus in anticipation of getting less sleep, and we are unable to make up sleep debt indefinitely.

How to Manage Sleep Debt

So, what’s the best way of managing sleep debt?

When it comes to our health, prevention is always the best method. So, we should all be aiming for 6 to 9 hours of sleep a night – most nights. We can achieve this by engaging in good sleep hygiene and having a consistent sleep routine. If we’re getting a less-than-ideal number of hours of sleep, we generally shouldn’t go more than a few days without allowing ourselves to ‘catch-up’.

What does catching up look like? We allow ourselves a night or two to sleep as much as we need – which should be achieved by getting into bed earlier than usual (rather than excessively sleeping in).

One of the important aspects of sleep hygiene is having a consistent sleep schedule in terms of wake and bedtime – and yes, even on the weekends. If we consistently wrack up a small sleep debt over the week and attempt to repay it over the weekend it affects our sleep rhythm. For example, if we work M-F, and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday – this makes it more challenging to go to bed at the appropriate time Sunday. It will also likely affect how we feel when we wake up Monday – and this can lead to a snowball effect in terms of negatively impacting our sleep cycle.

The variability in sleep and wake times is less concerning if you aren’t encountering any sleep problems. But, if insomnia or other sleep conditions are at play – being super rigid with sleep schedule is critical as sleep cycle changes can worsen issues.

Read more good sleep hygiene principles in our article 10 Tips to Get Better Sleep.

Final Thoughts

If you follow the sleep hygiene principles and sleep problems continue, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor. If sleep problems persist, there may be something contributing to your inability to get enough sleep. 

Cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for sleep problems.  Consider seeing a registered mental health provider to help manage sleep difficulties and support implementing good sleep hygiene principles. Sign up for a no-obligation consultation with Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych & Associates.  


Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. is the Clinic Founder of Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates and the CEO and Founder of MyWorkplaceHealth. Learn more about their clinical counselling and workplace consulting services.

Editor’s Note: This article is from Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates, and has been republished with permission.