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Sleep debt and its impact on your body

  • SIMA
- Posted: October 25, 2017

Winter’s coming and it’s likely you’re going to end up deep in debt. Sleep debt, or sleep deficit, is the cumulative effect on a person who does not get sufficient sleep. There are two types of sleep debt, and snow fighters are prime candidates to experience both:

  • Total sleep deprivation – When a person is awake for a minimum of 24 hours
  • Partial sleep deprivation – When a person has limited sleep for several days or even weeks
While sleep debt may come with the territory, it’s important to recognize the long- and short-term impacts that sleep deprivation has on the body, some of which can be deadly.
Sleep debt implications

The American Sleep Association ( and Adventist Health are among those who have identified the following as risks involved with sleep deprivation:

  • Higher risk of diabetes. Lack of sleep increases cortisol and norepinephrine, both associated with insulin resistance. Studies have shown the body is less successful in processing glucose when tired.
  • Weight gain. Sleep balances hormones that make you feel hungry and full.
  • Increase risk for heart disease and stroke. Blood pressure decreases when you sleep. Research shows that when you sleep six hours or less a night, your chance of a stroke increases 4 times.
  • Increased risk of breast cancer. Melatonin decreases when you are exposed to light at night. A decrease in melatonin disrupts estrogen production, which can lead to breast cancer.
  • Cognitive effects. Sleep deprivation also enhances activity on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis that regulates body functions such as the immune system, digestion, mood, and energy usage.

Besides the many physical consequences of insufficient sleep, perhaps the most important consequences of sleep deprivation are deficits in working memory and attention. According to the American Sleep Association, a survey found more activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain in sleepier subjects. The prefrontal cortex supports logical and practical reasoning and working memory. These results indicated that to complete a specific task, the average sleep-deprived subject’s brain needed to exert a lot more effort than the brain of an average non-sleep deprived person to accomplish the same task. Attentional lapses caused by sleep deprivation can move into critical domains whereby the consequences could well result in life or death: accidents and car crashes can be the result of inattentiveness, directly attributable to sleep deprivation.

Debt recovery?

A study from the University of Chicago concludes that it might be reasonable to recover from short-term sleep loss. They found subjects who slept only four hours nightly for six consecutive days developed higher blood pressure, increased cortisol levels, and weakened immune systems. The sleep-deprived subjects also showed signs of insulin resistance - a precursor of type 2 diabetes. All the changes were reversed when the students made up the hours of sleep they had lost. However, other short-term sleep loss studies have shown that baseline cortisol levels and attention are not easily regained with sleep recovery.

It may be difficult to recover from high sleep deficits, especially during rough winters with several serviceable snow events, but there are ways to try recoup some of the lost time. The Harvard Sleep Health Center shares these tips:

  • Rather than binge sleeping, it is better to increase sleep over a long period of time.
  • Remember that sleep is just as important for health as diet and exercise.
  • If you missed 10 hours of sleep in a week, add three to four extra sleep hours on the weekend and an extra hour or two per night the following week until you have “repaid” the debt.
  • Plan time off or a period of time with minimal work or obligations. Go to bed as soon as you are tired sleep until you naturally wake.
  • Determine your “sleep need” and factor it into your daily schedule. Try to consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, or at the very least on weekdays.

View all 2017 Snow Safety week articles and content here. Thank you to our sponsors Caterpillar, BOSS Snowplow, and RAM Trucks

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