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Sleep Deprivation: Normal Lifestyle or Dangerous Epidemic?

by: Susan Xie

Imagine an epidemic severe enough to impair memory and cognition, increase the risk of occupational and automobile injury, and alter typical brain responses to the extent where they resemble those of people with psychiatric disorders.1 After less than a week of experiencing these effects, otherwise healthy people succumb to a pre-diabetic state, a negative emotional outlook, and an inability to function normally in day-to-day activities.3,4 Furthermore, several large-scale studies from all over the world have reported an association between this epidemic and heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and obesity.3 With health risks this substantial, it is only logical that we would want to take all possible measures to prevent ourselves from becoming the next victims. But what if this so-called “epidemic” already runs rampant, especially on college campuses? What if our own habits and lifestyles naturally enable it to flourish and gradually claim student after student?

If you have ever stumbled back to your dorm early in the morning after camping out in Fondren Library all night, guzzling energy drinks or coffee to get yourself through a cram session, you are probably already well-acquainted with this bane of all things productive: sleep deprivation. If there is one thing we know for sure about sleep, it is that attaining rest is absolutely crucial, no matter how elusive or impossible it seems on some days. After all, biologically speaking, animals are most vulnerable when sleeping, yet every animal that has been studied thus far requires sleep, indicating that its importance outweighs the evolutionary risks of periodically losing consciousness.3 A well-established demonstration of the basic necessity of sleep was completed through a series of studies done in the 1980s. When a group of rats was kept awake indefinitely, individual rats started dying after only five days from sleep deprivation—the same amount of time that the animals would have lasted had they instead been subjected to food deprivation.3 Considering that sleep was shown to be just as essential to survival as sustenance, it should not be surprising that humans spend about one-third of their lives sleeping—time that, rather than being viewed as a repository of extra hours that we can access on busy days, should be valued as a prerequisite to achieving our full potential and performance levels.

However, asking college students to consistently get a full night’s sleep will seem more like a taunt for many rather than advice that can be feasibly followed. Even as students shoulder increasingly heavier loads of academic, extracurricular, and job commitments, they might still harbor reservations toward reducing the amount of quality time devoted to friends or plain procrastination. Under these conditions, the daily requirement of 7-9 hours of sleep for healthy adults becomes nothing more than an ideal. Even worse, one particularly busy day has the potential to initiate a vicious cycle: when we get inadequate rest for one night, we become less productive the next day and are thus forced to stay up later again to finish our work. Further complicating matters is the fact that students routinely overestimate how quickly they can finish assignments, when in reality, projects typically require twice the number of predicted days to complete.8 Much of the time, however, we are not even completely aware of how impaired or inefficient we have become. In fact, staying up late is often considered a “badge of honor” among college students, with the all-nighter regarded as a major “rite of passage.”8

Still, it does not take extensive scientific investigation to figure out that depriving ourselves of sleep is ultimately detrimental. All health risks aside, there is still the question of whether substituting sleep with late-night studying has true academic worth. While most students will contend that it is worthwhile to sacrifice sleep for extra time to learn and review material before an exam or to finish a paper, studies indicate that pulling all-nighters is associated with slightly lower GPAs, decreased alertness and delayed reactions, increased tendencies to make mistakes, and impaired abilities to think, process, and recall information.1,8 These are all factors that compromise a student’s overall performance and somewhat defeat the purpose of staying up later in the first place.

The effects of sleep deprivation also have serious implications regarding learning and memory. In a study conducted by Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, college students who had been awake for more than 24 hours performed 40% worse when memorizing lists of words than they would have with a night of sleep.3 Additionally, Walker found that sleep actually enhances memories—after a full night of rest, students not only came back the next day feeling refreshed, but also performed better than they did the day before. After experimental subjects learned and repeatedly typed a random sequence of numbers, they were tested at different times of the day to determine the extent and effectiveness of learning. The group that learned the sequence in the morning and was tested 12 hours later exhibited about the same performance level. On the other hand, the group that learned the sequence late in the day and was tested after a night of sleep showed a 20- 30% improved performance.3 Therefore, according to Walker’s findings, the notion that we must stay awake longer to get more work done is misguided and counterproductive. Giving into the temptation of sleep is not necessarily yielding to weakness; rather, it is making a rational decision that is most conducive to accomplishing the maximum amount of work in the long run.

Aside from curbing students’ academic potential, sleep deprivation also warps our personalities and strains our interaction with others. After only one night of complete or even partial sleep deprivation, people exhibit much stronger negative emotions the next day and are likelier to remember bad experiences as opposed to positive ones.4 According to a key study conducted by radiologist Seung-Schik Yoo of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, people who had been deprived of sleep for 35 hours showed much greater activation of the amygdala (a primitive part of the brain that controls emotional arousal) when viewing such upsetting images as pictures of mutilated animals.4 This change in brain activity in response to lost sleep is so significant that even after several nights of quality sleep, people still have a “horrible bias shift” regarding their memories of the day following insufficient sleep.4 Not surprisingly, sleep deprivation can lead to tension, depression, and confusion; it is also associated with a generally lower satisfaction with life, an increased number of absences from classes or work, and a heightened risk of inadvertent injuries and death.8 Currently, the definite long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation on learning, emotion, social relationships, and health have not been completely elucidated, but problems controlling impulses and emotions, coupled with sleep deprivation, are likely to lead to a “negative spiral” of fatigue, fluctuating emotions, and risky behavior.2

So now that we know the grave extent of this selfinflicted epidemic, where do we go from here? Is there a cure, or are there at least preventative measures? If so, are they within our reach? Most of us can manage one or two late nights well enough with caffeine and a sufficient amount of ambition, interspersed with adequate physical activity to keep us awake, but such arrangements are never long-term. The most important consideration to keep in mind is that sleep deprivation has a cumulative effect. After just a single night of 4-6 hours of sleep (not to mention anything less than that amount), people already begin to experience difficulties in remembering information, thinking quickly, and reacting in a timely manner; thereafter, each additional night of sleep deprivation only contributes an added burden to the growing sleep debt.3 At some point, these deficits accumulate to an extent where the only effective cure is to—you guessed it—sleep away the cognitive impairment. This is especially true of people who are chronically sleep-deprived. Even though they tend to harbor the erroneous belief that they have trained themselves to work continuously and function perfectly fine with fewer hours of sleep per night, they actually overestimate their own limitations considerably, much like people under the influence of alcohol, and exhibit no such convenient adaptation to their hectic lifestyles. 3

From these findings, it seems that no man-made alternative will ever fully emulate the profound effect that sleep has on various aspects of our mental and physical health. Every single one of us would most likely pounce at the opportunity to schedule some sort of session into our busy agendas that promises to improve our emotional outlook, decrease stress, boost memory and cognition, revive our physical wellbeing, and promote alertness and efficiency in handling everyday tasks. In fact, if a full night of sleep is unachievable, “power naps” can do just that. Taking the time to nap for about 20-30 minutes during the day boosts our working memory, information retention, alertness, and stamina; best of all, it eliminates drowsiness, counts toward the average total of 7.5-8 hours of sleep we need daily, and helps us make the most of limited time.3,5 So next time you need a boost, reaching for that energy drink may not be the best answer—especially not when you have a healthier, more effective option that is completely free of charge. In battling the ravages of this so-called epidemic, sleep is indeed one of the most underused, yet powerful, tools in our arsenal. Now, it is up to us to determine for ourselves whether groggily wading through that assignment would truly be more productive than catching a bit of proper, refreshing shut-eye.


1. Breus, Michael J. Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/importantsleep- habits (accessed 10/25/09), article from WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/ (accessed 10/25/09).
2. Carpenter, Siri. Sleep deprivation may be undermining teen health. Monitor on Psychology [Online] 2001, 32, 9. http://www. apa.org/monitor/oct01/sleepteen.html (accessed 10/25/09).
3. Finkelstein, Shari (producer). The Science Of Sleep. 6/15/08. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/03/14/60minutes/ main3939721.shtml (accessed 10/25/09), article from CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/ (accessed 10/25/09).
4. Foreman, Judy. Sleep deprivation and negative emotions. 8/3/09. http://www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2009/08/03/ sleep_deprivation_and_negative_emotions/ (accessed 10/25/09), article from The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/ news/ (accessed 10/25/09).
5. Marten, Sylvia. How to Power Nap at Work. 4/9/07. http://www.spine-health.com/blog/ergonomics/how-power-nap-work (accessed 11/26/09).
6. Myers, David G. Psychology: Ninth Edition; Worth Publishers: New York, 2008.
7. Student Health Services, Texas A&M University. Sleep and the College Student. 9/08. http://healthed.tamu.edu/pdfs/General/ sleep.pdf (accessed 10/25/09).
8. Yahalom, Tali. College students’ performance suffers from lack of sleep. 9/17/07. http://www.usatoday.com/news/ health/2007-09-16-sleep-deprivation_N.htm (accessed 10/25/09), article from USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/ (accessed 10/25/09).

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