The danger of deprivation

With only a few days left before exams kick off and final papers are due, sleep is the last thing on many students’ minds.

It’s a time-honoured tradition on campus, as many forgo sleep to cram for an exam or finish up that last essay before classes wrap up. I’m just as guilty of this as any other student, constantly staying up until the early hours of the morning to finish writing stories or studying for an exam.

Since the average person needs six to eight hours of sleep each night, it becomes incredibly hard to function when you’re running on one or two hours of sleep. If there’s a run of such nights, as I’ve had consistently this year, it can come with several consequences as a student.

After pulling an all-nighter, I’ve slept in class, at work and in myriad places around campus. I’ve missed out on crucial information in lectures because I simply couldn’t focus on anything other than the effort required to keep my eyes open.

That said, not every student who’s lacking sleep is facing an exam or essay. Sometimes there are more personal reasons for a lack of sleep and the havoc it can cause on a person.

A study conducted by U.K. researchers in 2012 concluded that insufficient sleep and the interruption of circadian rhythms has a negative effect on the expression of genes. This can lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease and impaired cognitive function.

The study observed that just one week of insufficient sleep was sufficient to impair the expression of genes — the up- or down-regulation of 711 genes due to sleep deprivation was seen in total. These genes affect circadian rhythms, sleep homeostasis, metabolism and other important health factors.

Michelle Chu was a victim of abuse in her past and part of her difficulties with sleeping come from that.

“Sometimes it affects me psychologically really hard to the point where last year I experienced a lot of nightmares,” she said. “I will avoid going to sleep.”

Chu, ArtSci ’17, started attending counselling and sees one that works specifically on her sleep issues. One of the things the counsellor has worked with her on is practicing good sleep hygiene.

“It’s pretty much just practicing good sleep habits,” she said. “Some things about sleep hygiene would be like half an hour before bed, you don’t look at your cell phone or screens or watch anything at all because all that extra stimulation will keep your brain up.”

She added that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and performing certain routines before sleeping are some of the other strategies she’s been taught.

Health, Counselling and Disability Services’ (HCDS)’ Be Well-Do Well website includes several of these tips. It also includes ideas like getting up to do something that isn’t too stimulating and avoiding daytime naps if you struggle with sleeping at night.

Rest is critical for students — the less sleep someone gets, the more likely it will impair their learning and memory processes. That’s why small differences in sleep hygiene, like ensuring the bedroom is dark and avoiding intense exercise before bedtime, is so crucial.

While she’s been using these strategies to help her sleep, deprivation can still be a problem for Chu. She said her “record” for consistent good sleep patterns was two or three weeks, whereas she’s gone through the same length of time sleeping during the days.

“There was a time for three weeks straight for when I became literally nocturnal,” she said. “So I would sleep at 7 a.m. and wake up late in the afternoon or evening even. I would miss all of my classes and I’d be behind on my assignments.”

She said there have been times when she has been awake but felt as though she wasn’t conscious as a result of going three days without taking more than a quick nap.

Part of the impact of sleep deprivation, according to HCDS, is the fact that attention and the ability to learn new tasks is inhibited by just some deviation from your normal sleep pattern.

When a student pulls an all-nighter, it can lead to an occurrence known as microsleep, in which a person is conscious but not aware of what is going on around them.

I’ve hit this point at various times during my three years at Queen’s, where I come to after having blanked out for five or so seconds.

In addition, HCDS’ peer mentor handbook for the effect of sleep deprivation notes that motivation is one of the first casualties when sleep is ignored.

For Sarah Besseau, the impact from sleep deprivation can make it hard to balance class and sleep. She often doesn’t fall asleep until 7 a.m., making it difficult for her to get up for her 8:30 classes.

“I try not to sleep during the day because I have classes obviously,” said Besseau, ArtSci ’18. “But this week I’ve been missing a lot of class because I’m so incredibly tired.”

She added that the worst situation she’s found herself in due to lacking sleep is making it up by sleeping until she missed all her classes.

According to HCDS, a sleep debt comes from failing to meet the number of hours you require asleep each night. Eventually, it will be made up through extra sleeping.

The stress Besseau experiences from being sleep-deprived leads her to even more sleeping issues.

“It stresses me out and when I get stressed out, I get more antsy,” she said. “Then I can’t sleep for even longer and it keeps piling up.”

My worst case of sleep deprivation impacting me was missing a critical doctor’s appointment because I slept through my alarm after spending the two previous nights going to bed after 5 a.m. Luckily, I was able to reschedule, but the lack of sleep can be costly on more than just the physical levels if you can’t make up for what you’ve already lost.

Although consequences can be severe after a week, it takes just one night to experience heightened emotions and appetite, a weakened immune system and, according to a 2014 study in the journal SLEEP, the loss of brain tissue.

Megan Hendry said she hasn’t slept through an alarm, but going without sleep has caused her to miss classes to try and make up for the rest she didn’t get.

“I have actively tried not to miss things, but I usually do it out of the choice of I decide to not to go to class because I want to go to sleep,” said Hendry, ArtSci ’15. “It depends on how exhausted I am. If I’m literally dying, then I’ll just sleep and actively choose not to go to the class.”

When she goes to class on little sleep, Hendry said it’s difficult for her to be attentive. She also said she doesn’t get as involved in discussions during lectures and seminars as she does when she’s not tired.

“When I’m sleep deprived in class I kind of call myself a living zombie,” she said. “So I just go to class, try and make notes as much as I can. Just try to be as present on the paper, if I’m not present mentally.”

Two weeks ago Hendry slept from 2-5 a.m. and suffered from several ailments that come along with a lack of sleep. When coupled with the fact that she had to be in class until mid-afternoon, it made for a feeling she compared to “dragging my corpse around.”

And when Hendry finally gets a chance to sleep she admits, “It’s the best reward I can think of.”

— With files from Chloë Grande

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