Losing Sleep and Losing Out
by Nick Bovee | published Oct. 2nd, 2014
All-nighters are all too familiar to college students, but what are we really sacrificing when we throw aside sleep to scrape by at school? Sleep is our most natural and essential escape from stress, yet we voluntarily trade it away for more time to pursue other activities, lessening both the amount and quality of the sleep we get.
Lack of sleep dulls everything about us. Losing even 90 minutes of sleep for a single night can drop daytime alertness by over 30 percent. A study of 200 participants found that “sleep habits, particularly wake-up times, accounted for the largest variance in grade point averages.” In a similar trial, students who had at least seven hours of sleep prior to a test scored almost an entire grade higher than students who lacked sleep. While late night cramming may work every once in a while, it’s one of the worst options for test preparation.
Staff members at the RIT Counseling Center also emphasized the importance of sleep for students’ academic performance. While not a diagnostic sleep clinic, the Counseling Center, headed by Toni Gauthier and Dr. Jane Ruoff, handles the sleep deprivation issues found on campus. Sleep is integral to the way we store memories. Researchers separate how we interact with our memories into three categories: acquisition, consolidation and recall. Although memories are formed during the day, stabilization of the memories doesn’t occur until the next REM sleep cycle.
“Sleep is probably the most neglected health activity among college students,” Gauthier said. “If they’re in a residential hall, it can be very difficult to control light, heat and noise.”
Sleep is integral to the way we store memories. Researchers separate how we interact with our memories into three categories: acquisition, consolidation and recall. Although memories are formed during the day, stabilization of the memories doesn’t occur until the next REM sleep cycle.
“We need our REM sleep. When our brain consolidates memories from the day, it links those to past learned material and fi lters out extraneous information that we don’t need,” said Gauthier. “Unstable memories are hard or even impossible to recall. All-night study sessions then introduce us to a multitude of extremely unstable memories, which are tough to recall the day of the test.”
Memory obstruction is only half of the equation. Sleep deprivation is accompanied by a loss of awareness and an increase in reaction time that puts individuals at double the risk for workplace injuries. Similarly, the National Highway Traffi c Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that fatigue is a factor in at least 100,000 car crashes and nearly half as many injuries – numbers which the NHTSA suspects are underreported. Worse still, drivers of ages 16 to 29 and drivers with untreated sleep disorders are the most likely to be a part of those 100,000 crashes.
Sleep deprivation can build up in both the short and long term and has many different causes. Distractions in the middle of the night, like sleep apnea or passing traffic, pull the sleeper out of deep REM sleep.
Avoiding light sources at night is a common solution. Our bodies suppress melatonin in the presence of light, especially blue light. Daytime light exposure also affects the body’s circadian rhythm making long naps a poor option to catch up on sleep. Many issues occur just because people force themselves to sleep less than the eight hours they need and often less than the agreed minimum of six hours.
To remedy this, Gauthier recommended using a sleep journal or an app such as Sleep Studio to track and manage sleep. Stress, caffeine or a lack of a routine all contribute to shortened sleep cycles, which can quickly develop into sleep deprivation.
“In our society we think that sleep is a luxury,” Gauthier said, “but sleep is really an important wellness issue. It’s critical to our emotional and physical well-being.”
The RIT Counseling Center accepts students who struggle with sleep issues, and staff will meet one-on-one with students if necessary. The center offers a two-session workshop for sleep improvement and can refer students to sleep clinics off campus. To make an appointment, call (585) 475-6548.