What is sleep debt? Symptoms and treatment

Learn the key signs of sleep debt and what you can do to catch up.

Learn the key signs of sleep debt and what you can do to catch up.
minute read

Medically Reviewed byDr. Caley Scott, ND

So much of the modern health and wellness conversation focuses on action. The right workouts, the right foods, the productivity hacks, and much more. But no matter how much you optimize your days, the benefits won't carry over unless you make the most of your sleep and recovery at night.

Getting enough sleep is one of the most overlooked aspects of daily health, as millions suffer from sleep deprivation and its groggy effects. A good night of sleep should be easy, right? The evidence suggests otherwise, especially as we hone in on the topic of sleep debt.

If you’ve struggled with insufficient sleep for a while now, you’ve likely racked up a significant sleep debt that’s long overdue. In this article, we’ll explain the concept of sleep debt and the effects of sleep deprivation. We’ll also map out your pathway to healthy sleep through practical tips.  

What is sleep debt?

The idea of sleep debt is based on the fact that the human body requires a certain amount of sleep each night to thrive. When we consistently miss out on sufficient sleep for a prolonged period of time, those lost hours add up, leaving our bodies “in debt” with various physical and psychological consequences.

Let’s say you need a solid eight hours of sleep each night, accounting for physical activity and a packed daily schedule of professional and personal commitments. If you only get six or seven hours of sleep each night from Monday to Friday, you’ll enter the weekend with a sleep debt of several hours.

The theory of sleep debt isn’t precise, and factors like sleep quality and lifestyle also come into play here. However, the concept is well understood by anyone who has experienced a sleep deficit themselves. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation can bring about more serious health issues, meaning that sleep debt is not something to be overlooked. 

While catching up on sleep can definitely help, the body needs some degree of consistency to perform as it should. If you suspect sleep debt is impacting your well-being and quality of life, it’s time to take sleep health seriously and navigate your way back to better sleep. 

Why does sleep debt happen?

Sleep debt can accumulate for various reasons, ranging from poor sleep hygiene to circumstances that lie outside our control, like shift work.

Typically, sleep debt begins with poor time management and a lack of understanding of what the body really needs. Many of us don’t recognize the true meaning of adequate sleep, and we believe we can “cheat the system” by going to bed later, hitting snooze in the morning, and firing our early morning cortisol levels with too much caffeine. While this might work for you in the moment, the reality of sleep debt is always lingering in the background.

Poor sleep quality is another part of the sleep debt equation — not all sleep is created equal. Just because you’re lying unconscious in your bed for several hours a night doesn’t guarantee your body and brain are recovering fully from the events of the day. Your body must go through different stages, including deep sleep and REM sleep, to reset and restore itself at every level. 

Finally, there may be conditions like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and other disorders that lead to a lack of sleep over time. Even if you’re doing everything right in the realm of health and sleep hygiene, these conditions can hamper sleep quality and leave you with less sleep despite your best efforts.

Realistically, sleep debt happens due to a combination of possible factors discussed here. Your goal is to address each component that may contribute to your sleep duration and quality, minimizing the impact of sleep debt.

What are the symptoms of sleep debt?

While sleep debt can happen for a number of different reasons, the symptoms tend to be universal for anyone lacking quality sleep. You’ve probably experienced the effects of a poor night’s sleep before, but what happens when that sleep debt begins to compound over time? 

Here are some of the symptoms to watch for so that you can identify them and make the necessary changes.

Daytime sleepiness

The effects of sleep debt usually begin during the middle of the day. The effects of your morning coffee have worn off, cortisol lowers, and you’ve navigated the first part of your task list without a hitch. However, sleepiness will start to set in around noon, and the post-lunch grogginess can leave you feeling depleted of motivation and energy.

It's normal to experience a small dip in your energy levels midday, but intense sleepiness is a sign of compounded sleep debt. The effects are subtle, and it might not register as an issue at first. Be sure to monitor your energy levels during the day so you can address your sleep needs before further symptoms emerge.

Slow reaction times

As sleep debt starts to mount over several days, you may notice the effects of brain fog setting in. Slow reaction times indicate the brain is working overtime and not functioning properly. Sleep is when the brain consolidates memories and regenerates energy, so you’re fighting an uphill battle with sleep debt.

Additionally, you may have trouble performing basic cognitive tasks or concentrating on projects or conversations. These problems can limit your ability at work, in your hobbies, and in personal relationships.

Slow reaction times can also become a safety hazard as you lose track of your sense of time and space. Play it safe by paying back your sleep debt and restoring your mental abilities.

Weak immune system

The effects of sleep debt become more dangerous when your immune system gets involved. Proper sleep is crucial to the regulation of the immune system, including cytokine release, antibody production, and other key processes. 

Lack of consistent sleep can also hamper the production and function of T cells, which combat infections in the body. Furthermore, your body is unable to recover from illness efficiently when operating without adequate sleep. These factors combined can leave you vulnerable to various attacks, including bacteria, viruses, and more. 

Increased risk of mental health problems

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of mental health problems, such as mood disorders and issues with emotional regulation. Mental resilience is vital to staying centered and navigating life’s challenges, which is far more difficult without a solid sleep regimen.

Obstacles that are typically easy to overcome can seem insurmountable when you’re in a severe sleep deficit. This can lead you to rely more heavily on caffeine and other substances, which can amplify feelings of tension, discomfort, and worse. If you’re committed to taking your mental health more seriously, tackling sleep debt should be the first order of business on your list. 

How can you support your sleep quality?

We’ve covered some of the dangers of sleep debt and explained why it’s more than a surface-level concern. Now, it’s time to take action. Let’s lay out some practical ways you can support your sleep and restore balance to your physical and mental health overall.

Revamp your sleep schedule

You may have a precise work schedule and plan key events months in advance, so why not treat your sleep regimen with the same level of care? Unfortunately, sleep is one of the first items on the chopping block when it comes to prioritization, but this shouldn’t be the case.

Start by auditing your daily routine and looking for blocks of time that you can consolidate or exchange for additional sleep. This may mean reducing TV or scrolling time or setting boundaries around social obligations. Aim to get to bed consistently and set your circadian rhythm to wake up with the sun. 

Address any sleep disorders with your doctor

You may suffer from sleep disorders that contribute to your sleep debt, despite your best efforts in scheduling and sleep hygiene. It may be time to connect with your doctor and discuss ways to overcome these issues with sleep medication or other techniques. Even a minor sleep disorder can wreak havoc on your routine, so don’t hesitate to take control.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene covers everything from scheduling and organization to bedroom setup and evening routine. Learn some reliable methods to set the stage for sleep each night and avoid stimulating activities like late-night screen time and potential stressors. 

Sleep hygiene requires experimentation and a willingness to adopt new practices, so embrace the process and track your sleep results each night.

Support your sleep hygiene with hemp

Hemp extracts with CBD and CBN have been shown to balance the endocannabinoid system and support deep, restorative sleep. Unlike prescription sleep medications, hemp compounds offer an all-natural, toxin-free, sustainable way to relax the body and create the conditions for optimal sleep. Sunmed formulas are backed by science with third-party lab reports.* 

Our collection of hemp extracts for sleep can help you unwind at the end of the day and make the most of each hour you spend asleep. Paying back your sleep debt can take time, and our best-selling hemp formulas can make a big difference.*

Manage your stress

Overcoming stress is easier said than done, but it’s a crucial step in your battle against sleep debt. Adopt healthy stress management techniques during the day and employ methods like meditation or deep breathing to release tension in the body and mind before bed

The key is to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system at night and subdue the “fight or flight” response in the body. This approach will reduce cortisol and other stress hormones that get in the way of quality sleep.

Make sleep a priority

You may find it difficult to prioritize sleep while facing the pressures and obligations of life. However, it’s worth making some small sacrifices to earn back your sleep and get on track.

Whether you need to make time for naps on the weekend or open up your evening schedule during the week, the space you make for sleep is worth the effort.

The bottom line

Sleep debt can impact your body and mind, taking a toll on your performance and quality of life. In more severe cases, the health consequences can be damaging. 

Thankfully, you can make up for lost sleep with a few practical steps while shifting your priorities in the short-term. Once you’re back on track with a sustainable sleep routine, you’ll feel renewed and capable of anything. 


Sleep Debt | CDC

Sleep Debt and Catching Up on Sleep | Sleep Foundation

How Much Sleep Is Enough? | NIH

Can you ever make up for lost sleep? | UChicago Medicine

Effects of Cannabinoids on Sleep and their Therapeutic Potential for Sleep Disorders | NIH