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America’s Silent Crisis

Are you suffering from sleep debt?

Insomnia by Fry1989. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
Source: Insomnia by Fry1989. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Ads for new mattresses, specialty pillows, and sleep medications fill the air waves, promising a better night’s sleep. According to the National Centers for Disease Control (2016), one out of every three Americans fails to get enough sleep. This lack of sleep causes debilitating fatigue, traffic accidents, poor memory, low productivity, and a wide range of illnesses from increased inflammation, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, to depression, anxiety, and low impulse control (Davis, 2018; Dement & Vaughan, 1999; Pietrangelo, A. & Watson, S., 2017).

Do any of these sleep debt symptoms sound familiar?

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Yawning
  • Fatigue
  • Low motivation
  • Memory lapses
  • Impatience and irritability
  • Depression
  • Low impulse control
  • Lack of empathy
  • Food cravings (Davis, 2018)

When you don’t get the sleep your body needs (usually between 7 and 8 hours a night), you accumulate “sleep debt.” For example, if you need 8 hours of sleep but only got 6 last night, you now have 2 hours of sleep debt. Like credit card debt, this debt adds up. Regardless of how much coffee you drink during the day, your body craves sleep, and will try to get it back in “microsleep,” moments when you find you’ve suddenly dozed off—at your desk, in class, or—most dangerously—on the road.

The only way to reduce sleep debt is to pay it off: to get more sleep. Stanford sleep specialist William Dement, M.D., Ph.D, has developed a 3-week “sleep camp” for this. In his book, The Promise of Sleep, he says to first conduct a sleep audit to determine how much sleep you need: for one week keep a sleep diary recording your total sleep time, your alertness during the day, your drinks of caffeine and alcohol, each day’s exercise, and daily bedtime routine. For the first week of the camp, he advises making the bedroom more sleep-friendly, eliminating extra lights, noise, and electronics, cutting down on caffeine, and taking a warm bath before going to bed. For weeks 2 and 3, he says to get as much extra sleep as you can, which means going to bed earlier, turning off television and Internet after 9:00 p.m., as well as getting daily exercise, preferably outdoors, cutting down or limiting caffeine, and eliminating alcohol, as well as maintaining a consistent sleep routine—going to bed and getting up at the same time.

At the end of the 3-week period, as a “sleep camp graduate” he says to notice how much better you feel, encouraging us all to maintain a healthy sleep routine for greater health and vitality. (Dement & Vaughan, 1999).

What about you? Could you benefit from sleep camp?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016) 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.

Davis, K. (2018). What’s to know about sleep deprivation?

Dement, W.C. & Vaughan, C. (1999). The Promise of Sleep. New York, NY: Dell.

Pietrangelo, A. & Watson, S.(2017). The effects of sleep deprivation on your body.