What’s the Maximum Sleep Debt Possible?

So during the past few months as I’ve pushed the hours I stay awake I’ve started feeling a bit like a zhombie during the day .  I’d drink increasing amounts of coffee to help counteract sleepiness.  However, using coffee has only worked well for temporary boosts of concentration and alertness for a single day, but it has had a downside of giving me less restful sleeps.  So then I’m more likely to wake up in the morning feeling tired. It gets compounded by the fact that I often try to use coffee to wake up even earlier.  The end result is I’ve generally always get less sleep than I’d like.

But lately the coffee seems less and less effective.  I’ve been feeling a different kind of burnt out than I’ve experienced before.  I’ve definitely been neglecting my body.  This is what science would call sleep debt.  I came across an article that suggested that many people in America are regularly accumulating sleep debt as a result of working increasing hours.

So during the past week I’ve been making a conscious effort to reclaim what I believe is my sleep debt.  But what I’ve found is that one good night of sleep is not enough to eliminate my sleep debt.  In fact a whole weekend of sleeping late, napping during the day, and going to bed early doesn’t seem like it’s enough.  In my effort to allow myself to sleep more, I’ve been a bit disturbed at the fact there seems to be no limit to how long I can sleep.

About 10 years ago I remember one of my former supervisors describing how  his vacation was going during the Christmas holidays.  He described this as his first vacation where his kids had all moved away, and he had nothing much to do.  He found himself getting bored and replacing that boredom with a little extra sleep.  And that little extra sleep turned into endless sleep.  He was sort of glad his vacation was over to take him away from this endless sleep.  His conclusion is that if he ever retired from work, he be concerned he could easily sleep his life away.

So I started to wonder if there is any limit to sleep debt.  I mean lets say you routinely sleep one hour less than you need a day every single day.  That would kind of mean that in about one month of this kind of sleep neglect you’d accumulate more than 24 hours of sleep debt.  If sleep debt really worked this way then you’d kind of need to find a way to sleep for 24 hours solid to eliminate that sleep debt.  But say you never find that extra time and you also continue to neglect yourself one hour of sleep every day.  Could you accumulate several years of sleep debt?

If you’d accumulate several years of sleep debt, then it would seem you’d fall into the category of perpetual zhombie.  I mean what does it look like when you let your boss  know that you are taking several years time off and by the way also let friends and family that you will not be leaving the house or bedroom much for several years.  In reality it would probably look more like “nervous breakdown” going into a “catatonic” state or some other form of physical or mental disorder that would require some form of supervised care.  What if you lived long enough accumulating sleep debt so that you have more sleep debt than the remaining years of your life; what happens?  Do you die then?  Do you go into a coma?

There are some theories that prolonged accumulation of sleep debt is how Alzhiemers manifests.

I did some quick math to see how much sleep debt one could accumulate over many years of life.  According to the math, if I cut my self short of one hour of sleep per day every day for 10 years straight, I’d accumulate 5 months of sleep debt.  Hmmm?  That kind of starts to agree with how I’ve been feeling.  I’ve probably been doing something like that for 10 or more years in my life.  So yes it’s rather challenging to figure out how to plan to get back 5 months of sleep.  If I decided to crash out on weekends and put in an extra 16 hours of sleep per weekend, it would take me over 4 years of doing this to recover 5 months of sleep debt!

I wonder how much sleep debt is related to one’s biological or perceived age.  If I somehow managed to lose 5 months of sleep this year, would I look about 10 years older?  Would someone say “Man, Wilson you look like you haven’t slept for 5 months!” or “Man, Wilson you looked like you aged 10 years!”  ?



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