By Shawna Leader/The AS Review
When it comes to sleep, the general perception is that college students are running up a huge deficit. "I pulled an all-nighter" may soon become part of many students’ vocabulary as finals approach. A common perception is that, as an isolated incident, an all-nighter will have few consequences besides a bleary-eyed morning.
In fact, short-term sleep deprivation has several consequences. According to Dr. Deb Chun, a psychology professor at Western, short-term sleep deprivation negatively affects physical and mental performance as well as one’s ability to think critically.
Other side effects of sleep deprivation include muscle aches, headaches, mood disorders, irritability, anxiety, and dangerous and unpredictable drowsiness, Dr. Emily Gibson, M.D. medical director of the Student Health Center, said.
When a person falls asleep, their brain undergoes a cycle consisting of four stages, each of which is defined by different brain waves, Chun said. At stage four, the cycle reverses. The entire cycle (stages one through four and back again) lasts approximately an hour and a half. At the end of each cycle, the brain enters Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. With each cycle, REM sleep becomes stronger and by the end of the night most of the sleep cycle is spent in REM. This is also the stage in which it is the most difficult to wake someone up.
When people endure long-term sleep deprivation, studies have shown that the brain can adjust if the person takes short naps throughout the day, Chun said. In this case, the brain will enter a separate stage in each nap, thus completing the cycle over a longer period of time. But this does not happen with all-nighters because they typically do not occur over a long period of time.
Instead, Chun suggested trying to go to sleep at the same time every night. Although this is difficult, especially for students, it will lead to sounder sleep, she said. Studies suggest that even if one perceives they are doing well, if they had maintained a consistent sleep pattern and gotten a lot of sleep they would have performed even better, Chun said.
But the busy life of a student can prevent this from happening. A common sentiment is that students have no choice when it comes to all-nighters; there is too much to do to get enough sleep.
According to research done by William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D at Stanford University, a study of undergraduates, nurses and medical students found that 80 percent of the participants were dangerously sleep deprived.
Senior Carley Higgins recently pulled her first all-nighter, citing too much work, not enough time and difficulties with technology as the reasons why she had to stay up. Afterward, lots of coffee was her remedy.
But it’s rare that a student actually has to stay up all night, Gibson said.
"In most instances it is a choice, either due to a desire to socialize, or be distracted by gaming, computer or TV, or simply poor time management and planning," she said. "In other words, [it is] completely preventable."
Chun suggested that students study ahead of time in order to ensure they get enough sleep. Grad student Gabe Headley said that he cannot function without sleep and would rather sacrifice some study time in order to rest.
"I’d rather go in with a little less knowledge than sleep," he said.
When students do decide to stay up, caffeine and energy drinks are a typical option for preventing drowsiness. However, caffeinated substances increase anxiety levels, Chun said. They can also prevent a person from falling asleep when they want to. Stimulants have side effects and can be poorly tolerated, Gibson said.
For some students, staying up isn’t the problem; it’s getting to sleep that is difficult. According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, about 30 to 40 percent of adults are affected by insomnia.
Again, maintaining a regular sleep schedule can make falling asleep easier, Chun said.
Over the counter aids such as sleeping pills can be helpful for short-term use, but Chun cautioned against using them over a long-term period. Because sleeping pills induce unconsciousness but not sleep, the person using them may not feel as rested in the morning as they would have had they slept naturally. This is because they do not get all the stages of sleep they need, Chun said.
Alcohol is not an effective sleep aid because, although it may make a person initially feel sleepy, it reduces the REM cycle, leading to restless sleep.
"It really reduces your sleep quality and then you wake up tired," Chun said.
Physical activity during the day helps a person sleep better, Chun said. Meditation and relaxation training also work for some people, she said.
Poor sleep patterns can be difficult to break over time and can have serious health consequences such as high blood pressure, Chun said, adding, "[Not sleeping] does have its effects and you can’t ignore it."