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Reducing sleep debt – A Sleep Expert tells us what we Need to Know

This is kind of part 2 of a conversation I had last week with Kim Corley, certified behavioural sleep specialist.

You don't need to have read that blog to get a LOT of useful information from this one, including simple steps you can take, by yourself, to improve the quality of your sleep.

So let's hear from Kim:

Last week when we discussed what happens if we miss sleep, I mentioned sleep debt. Sleep debt is what builds up when we miss sleep, whether it be missing a full night of sleep (total sleep deprivation) or only missing a couple of hours a night (partial sleep deprivation). The fact is, we are accumulating sleep debt daily. And we’ll continue to do so, until we start prioritising sleep.

What exactly is sleep debt?

As we go about our day, we accumulate fatigue (or sleep pressure). The easiest way to visualise this, is that adults gain a brick of sleep pressure or fatigue for every 2 hours we’re awake. Sounds heavy right?

To make it easier to carry, let’s put those bricks in a backpack. So, throughout the day, we’re loading our backpack full of fatigue bricks (1 fatigue brick for every 2 hours awake). By the time we’re ready for bed, we have 8 bricks in our pack. But don’t panic, these bricks will disappear when we get enough sleep.

Let’s say we need 8 hours of sleep a night (on average. Note that 50% of us actually need MORE than that, but that’s another blog). For every hour of sleep, one of those fatigue bricks disappears. So when we get our full 8 hours of sleep, we are starting the day fresh with an empty backpack, ready to carry the load of the day again. Awesome right.

(Dionne had a lightbulb moment here when she realised she REALLY didn't want to be starting each day carrying more and more bricks!).

reduce tiredness and sleep debt with magnesium daily habits

What if you miss an hour of sleep?

Let’s look at what happens if we only get 7 hours of sleep, instead of the 8 we need. We haven’t managed to remove all our fatigue bricks, so we are actually starting the day with one fatigue brick already in our backpack. You may have felt this yourself, if you’re waking with fatigue and not fully refreshed to take on the day.

Starting with one brick already, means that by the time we’ve completed our day, we now have 9 fatigue bricks to remove (which means we need 9 hours sleep to remove them all). But if we only get another 7 hours again ... then the next morning we’re starting with 2 bricks of fatigue. Plus our usual 8 again as we go about our day… and this is how sleep debt builds.

These days the majority of society is living with sleep debt. It’s yet another cost-of-living expense. But one that’s not often talked about!

How can we tell if we’re in sleep debt?

Apart from knowing you’ve actually missed out on some of the sleep you need, there are another couple of key indicators. You know that sleepy feeling you get after a full meal at lunch time? Yes, it’s true we all have a natural slump in the afternoon, but it’s minimal if we don’t have any sleep debt. If we’re well rested, we don’t get that “need to take a nap” feeling. You can also see how much sleep debt is affecting society if you travel long distance a lot. If you’re falling asleep on planes or trains or during long car trips, that’s another sign you’re in sleep debt (look around, you’ll see the ones who need more sleep).

magnesium can help you sleep and not need daily naps

Paying it back

The thing with sleep debt, like with any debt, is that we need to pay it back before we can get on track (to our bodies working as they should). Most of us have accumulated such a stack of fatigue that it will take a very long time to repay if we need to make back ALL our missing sleep (especially the parents among us).

The good news is we don’t need to pay ALL of it back. Whew! But when we do start taking our sleep seriously, we need to do more that just scratch the surface. Adding in some naps and weekend catch ups can help, for sure. But it’s also important to address the long term snowballing effects of sleep loss. And that debt takes longer to repay than one weekend sleep in.

How long?

Research has shown that it can take up to four days to recover from just one hour of lost sleep. Yes, you read that right. And while one study has stated it can take up to nine days to eliminate sleep debt (1) , other studies suggest impaired performance (from sleep loss) continues for much longer than that (2).

There are some simple steps you can take moving forward. To fix sleep debt you need to stop treating sleep as a luxury or an indulgence. Once you’ve recognised that adequate sleep is just as important for health as diet and exercise, set up a repayment scheme. You owe your body some rest!

get better sleep with a bedtime routine with Salt & Oil bath soak and magnesium oil koala sleeping in a tree

Here's how you can help yourself get out of Sleep Debt:

1. Settle up short-term debt: If you’ve missed 5-10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, you’ll need to add extra hours of sleep into your weekend, and then add an extra hour or two to each night until your debt is fully paid off. Unfortunately, it appears that sleeping in at weekends isn’t enough to cancel out the cumulative sleep debt of a bad week of sleep.

2. Address long-term debt: If you are able, plan a holiday with a light schedule and limited responsibilities. Sleep every night until you wake up naturally (no alarm clocks). If you like, take naps during the day.

3. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Once you feel you have started catching up, then ensure you build time into your schedule for enough sleep. Then you want to try and keep your bedtime and morning alarm the same every day. Yes, even on weekends. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is important for resyncing your circadian rhythm (or body clock).

4. Give it time: Remember that it can take days (if not weeks) to recover from sleep debt. If you are struggling to fit more sleep into your schedule, increase your sleep time slowly. Add 15 to 30 minutes each day, until you reach the optimal amount of sleep for your body.

5. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene. Things like a predictable pre-bed wind-down routine*, limiting screens before sleep, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, and consistently getting enough rest is important to make sleep come more easily.

6. Most of all – avoid falling into a new cycle of debt: Once you’ve figured out how much sleep you need, factor this into your daily schedule. And stick to it!

When you start paying off sleep debt and prioritising sleep, your whole life can change for the better. Getting quality sleep on a regular basis improves all sorts of issues, from your blood sugar to your mood, your performance and even your workouts.

Everyone needs a good night’s sleep! Are you ready to sleep well?

Thanks Kim, that was really informative.

Kim is a Mum, Wife and certified behavioural sleep specialist who works with all ages (babies, school children and adults) to solve sleep issues and improve sleep.

She founded Cherished sleep ( to ensure everyone to gets the rest they need to live their best life. While sleep is natural, in this day and age it needs to be nurtured! More and more research is outlining sleep as a foundational pillar of health. And this is one trend we all need to jump on board.

* Salt & Oil products come into their own as part of your predictable pre-bed routine. Whether it's relaxing for 20 minutes in a warm Epsom salt bath, topping up your magnesium levels with a magnesium oil foot massage, or clearing your mind by emptying your thoughts onto the pages of a journal, we've got you covered!

For Sleep Month we have a great special on our Sleep Support Gift Set. Normally $48.50, it's only $36.60 for the whole of March 2023.


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