Tracy Kuo, PhD
Clinical instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine
Kuo: The data from the National Sleep Foundation's annual surveys show that substantial percentages of American adults (as well as children and teens) are chronically not meeting their daily sleep need. For instance, in its 2005 poll, the NSF found that about 22 percent of surveyed adults said they get less than the amount of sleep each weeknight that they need to function at their best. How much a person needs to sleep a day is individual. Most people center around seven and a half hours a day. That same survey found that 40 percent of respondents said they get less than seven hours of sleep each night.
Why is quality of sleep a barometer for good health?
Kuo: Sleep is usually the first thing to go when a person is not well, physically or psychologically. Not sleeping enough on occasion isn't disastrous. It's the cumulative effect of sleeplessness over a long period that can negatively affect health. Most people do have some reserves in their "health and well-being bank account" for withdrawals. But if a person keeps drawing on the account and doesn't put back, the account will be depleted. The sleep debt gets bigger, eventually reaching a level that causes adverse consequences (burnout, depression, work and relationship impairment, accidents).
How can we sleep better?
Kuo: We need to give sleep the same degree of priority that we give to eating well and working out. Be consistent with your sleep routine—generally, go to bed and wake up the same time every day. Also, your sleep should have very few interruptions. A consolidated sleep, even a short amount, is more restorative than a long, fragmented and light one. (If someone's sleep problem has been chronic, however, we send her to a sleep disorder specialist. Sometimes poor sleep is not just caused by poor habits; it could have a medical etiology or psychological components. Both are treatable.)
How do you eliminate a sleep debt?
Kuo: The good news is that sleep debt does not work like loans or credit cards, where for every dollar you owe you pay one back. If you have missed 5,000 hours of sleep over the past ten years, you do not need to sleep 5,000 hours to make it up. Sleep debt can be eliminated by matching your sleep need every day, plus maybe a tiny bit more to pay back the debt. If you can do that, there's a high likelihood that you can make up your sleep debt in 30 days.