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The backpack-wearing Walking Dead

How our deprioritization of sleep touches all parts of our lives

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In our community, sleep is something to be skirted rather than sought after. People, and especially college students, seem to deprive themselves of sleep and then question why it affects them.

Science and our parents have drilled the phrase “eight hours” into our heads, but when reality hits, we start training ourselves to fight the yawn. On a college campus, you’ll often hear students compete with one another about how little they slept or knock back a coffee with nauseating speed — no, wait, that one’s just me. Only 70-90% of college students get the recommended eight hours of sleep. This lack of sleep bleeds into other parts of our lives, especially since students rank sleep problems second only to their stress in factors that adversely affect their academic performance.

There’s a joke that goes like this: between your school life, your sleep, and your social life, you can only pick two. That seems like an easy choice when you can use coffee to fill your tank or if you’re going out with friends later. If the only way we analyze our sleep is by how much coffee it takes to make us feel like we did sleep for eight hours, we can see how the lack of priority college students have surrounding sleep doesn’t come close to reflecting the serious dependence our lives and minds have on us getting enough.

With a very toxic mentality, college students are failing to see sleep as something they need to remain functioning at the most basic level. This attests to what is perhaps the cultural aspect of college: being able to fit as much as you can in your day, and still go out and have fun that night or stay up decompressing. It’s hard to tell a young adult to just go to bed and wake up earlier, as some of our circadian rhythms have biologically shifted to night owl status. But when we can’t sleep in late after a late night, our bodies start to suffer and its functions start to change.

“Lack of sleep will affect a college student negatively in many ways,” Dr. Nathaniel F. Watson, director of the Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic, said. “It’ll cause them to learn less effectively and perform less well on examinations … Our cognitive performance is compromised by sleep deprivation essentially, but it also affects our body’s metabolism. We know that sleep deprivation is associated with gluten intolerance, diabetes; it’s also associated with cardiovascular diseases like hypertension and stroke.”

College is competitive in its nature, and the pressure to take on extracurriculars builds on the desire — maybe even obligation — to be young and fun 20-somethings. As a result, many students look at how productive we think we could be, and how we can get there without sleeping more. It doesn’t seem to add up — if you want to get more done, why would you end your day sooner?

“If [college students] spend more time on sleep, both their experience in their social lives and in school will be better,” Watson said. “They’ll perform better, and the time that they’re awake [their experience] will be higher quality. It’s worth trading the time to sleep in order to present the best version of yourself to the world.”

As I was trying to write this article on Sunday night, I fell asleep trying to transcribe an interview. When I tried again on Monday evening, I was so tired that I could barely understand my keyboard. It’s not that I did anything crazy over the weekend: I wasn’t sick, and I didn’t pull an all-nighter. I do have insomnia, but I also haven’t had a consistent sleep schedule in years and haven’t attempted to change that, and often wonder what it would feel like to be fully rested.

“[Sleep deprivation] will affect your ability to manage your emotions and react to emotions appropriately,” Watson said. “It’s also going to increase your irritability and as a result interferes with personal relationships … It really is worth considering making your sleep as important as diet and exercise are to your overall health.”

As intuitive as it sounds, you can’t make up for a lost night of sleep with increased sleep in subsequent days. Almost all of us have pulled an all-nighter at some point in our college careers, but these don’t help us as much as we want them to.

There’s that little voice in our heads when we are in Hour Eight of huffing Odegaard’s fumes: if you don’t know the content now, you won’t know it tomorrow — we may in fact be stabbing ourselves in the back. A study testing people’s motor skills at the start and end of a 12-hour period showed that those that didn’t sleep during the window showed no improvement. In contrast, those who did sleep scored 18% higher on the motor skills test. I wouldn’t try to tell you to not pull an all-nighter, but you should try to wrap up with even a short nap.

The way that sleep improves memory consolidation attests to the huge influence sleep has over our mental and physical health, while additionally demonstrating how the risks of sleep deprivation don’t stop at mere drowsiness. Studies that have totally restricted rats from sleeping found effects of edema, weight loss despite increased food intake, and impaired balance and coordination. While no human has been known to die from staying awake, all rats were dead within 32 days.

A study on Navy SEALS showed that even after extreme sleep deprivation, an optimum dose of 200 mg caffeine was still able to bring them back to normal levels of alertness and improved marksmanship skills. Pour a cup or two in the morning — but remember that long-term prioritization of sleep, and understanding its importance, will keep you awake for the next four years.

Reach writer Grace Harmon at Twitter: @grace_viv

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