04/10/2013 08:44 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

I'm Not Fat, I'm Sleep-Deprived!

At the moment, I am in debt. Sleep debt. And I am not alone.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, humans should get between "seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, health and safety." When we don't get enough sleep, we accumulate sleep debt.

On average, Americans sleep 6.9 hours a night -- 6.8 hours during the week and 7.4 hours on the weekends, Scientific American reports. Which means most of us are losing more than two full weeks of slumber every year.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to "negative mood and behavior, decreased productivity, and safety issues in the home, on the job, and on the road," the National Sleep Foundation reports. Scientists have also found a relationship between the quantity of one's sleep and many health problems.

In a landmark study, researchers at the University of Chicago had a group of student volunteers sleep 4 hours a night for 6 consecutive nights. The result?

The volunteers developed higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced only half the usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine. The sleep-deprived students also showed signs of insulin resistance -- a condition that is the precursor of type 2 diabetes and metabolic slowdown.

Reading about this study made me want to go out and buy a T-shirt bearing the message: I'm Not Fat. I'm Sleep-Deprived!

While all of these changes were reversed when the students made up the hours of sleep that they had lost, who has the time to play catch-up? And how do you do it?

Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, regional medical director of the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers, offers the following advice:

Settle short-term debt. If you missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of 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 fully.

Address a long-term debt. Plan a vacation with a light schedule and few obligations. Then, turn off the alarm clock and just sleep every night until you awake naturally.

Avoid backsliding into a new debt cycle. Once you've determined how much sleep you really need, factor it into your daily schedule. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day -- at the very least, on weekdays.

Last month, I picked up a Fitbit One. This awesome little device measures my steps, notes the flights of stairs I climb, counts the calories I burn and generally encourages me to be less sedentary. The Fitbit also measures my sleep habits: how long it takes for me to fall asleep, how many times I wake up and how long I'm actually unconscious.

In general, I strive to be above average in all things, but when it comes to getting quality sleep, I am not doing well. In fact, I am in serious sleep debt.

My alarm is set for 7 p.m. My sleep target is 7 hours. Using the data collected by my Fitbit, the Sleep Debt website says that I am currently 15 hours in debt. Why? Because, on average, I only sleep 5 1/2 hours a night. To completely clear this debt, I'd have to sleep for 22 hours.

This is not good.

So, my goal for April is to change this trend and get out of debt. I'm going to sleep more, and the sleep I experience will be restful.