“Alertness aids” seem to be the rage on campus these
days. With everything from energy drinks to Adderalls, University
students are pushing the limits of their studying capabilities.
Sacrificing sleep for the promise of stronger academic results,
these individuals don’t quit until they “crash”
the next day.
Endemic to America’s institutions of higher learning, this
trend is disturbing because of the implications it has for the
mental well-beings of this nation’s college students.
It has been said that in college, when it comes to grades, fun
and sleep, you can only have two. From an informal survey of
virtually any college campus, it’s evident that students
usually opt for the first two upon hearing the classic maxim.
“My sleeping patterns are very inconsistent; I either get
a lot (of sleep), or none at all,” said LSA senior Pamela
Itzkowitch. “It’s mostly due to my workload … I
have a full course schedule. But when I get a decent amount of
sleep, I’m a lot more functional,” Itzkowitch
LSA senior Daniel Rieger admitted, however, that his lack of
sleep comes from slightly different source: “It’s
mainly from partying,” he said. “I’m so busy
during the week, I just have to release on the weekends. I just end
up not getting any sleep during these times.”
People may lose sleep for a variety of reasons, whether it is
from academic stress or an unusual lifestyle. Yet, whatever the
case may be, both the bookworms and the revelers place themselves
at risk for an assortment of serious health problems with every
sleepless night they accrue.
The effects of sleep deprivation may be manifested through a
number of negative physical responses. In an exhausted body, the
eyes lose their ability to focus properly; muscle strength becomes
sharply reduced when the metabolism slows down. Consequently, basic
motor skills become impaired, the degree correlated to the amount
of regular sleep that is lost. Lack of sleep also results in a
compromise of the immune system, rendering the non-sleeper
susceptible to infections. Moreover, long-term sleeplessness may
cause severe gastrointestinal problems, as the body forces itself
to adjust to a foreign schedule.
Sleep deprivation also takes a significant toll on the emotional
stability of a person. Recent studies suggest that sleep
deprivation can be linked to the aggravation of clinical
depression. Stress, anxiety, general mental duress all may
perpetuate insomnia, yet they may also precipitates chronic
sleeplessness; the progression of emotional side effects is
circular in this way.
“The risk for psychiatric disorders such as depression is
increased … in the short term, people with insomnia describe
moodiness, irritability, difficultly with concentration and just
plain feeling lousy,” said Ronald Chervin, director of the
University’s Sleep Disorders Laboratory.
An excessive denial of sleep will even result in very grave
psychological repercussions. The New England Journal of Medicine
has definitively linked fatigue to automobile accidents; many
researchers agree that a night of lost sleep is equivalent in its
effects on the central nervous system as one or two alcoholic
In Britain, several recent studies have alarmingly concluded
that long-term sleep deprivation can result in borderline
retardation, with every hour of sleep lost translating into a
temporary, one-point drop in the IQ of the individual.
There are several different treatments for sleeplessness, each
one depending on the causes and severity of the case. A
pharmacological approach is most frequently used for serious but
short-term insomnia. There are several pills on the market that can
be used to combat insomnia. Most of these are benzodiazepines
— a class of drugs prescribed for their tranquilizing,
sedative and anti-anxiety effects. However, drugs of this category
are extremely addictive physiologically, and should be used with
prudence and caution.
Non-benzodiazepine prescription sleep aids like Ambien and
Sonata do exist, yet these pills are also habit-forming, making it
potentially difficult for users to adopt a natural sleep cycle
after their discontinuance.
Actual medical treatment is also a helpful solution for
insomnia. Usually employed in cases of acute, chronic insomnia,
psychological counseling and behavioral therapy, physicians seek to
find the underlying causes behind a patient’s inability to
sleep. Physicians may often find psychological and/or neurological
trauma to be the root of sleepless, making it easier to continue
with a suitable plan of action.
“The first thing we do (at the Neurology Department) is
diagnose the insomnia, which is a complaint, not a specific
disorder,” Chervin said. “Once we know what is causing
the insomnia, we can usually plan an effective treatment
An alternative method — which can and should be instituted
in addition to others — is the practice of “sleep
hygiene.” Advocated by Prof. Henry Olders, a prominent sleep
researcher at McGill University, sleep hygiene involves a
regimented sleep plan of sorts. It involves environment controls,
such as adjusting the bedroom’s levels of noise, light and
climate. In addition, it calls for the suspension of nicotine,
caffeine, alcohol and exercise three hours before the desired
Many doctors also advise against taking long naps during the
day. The National Sleep Foundation stresses the fact that naps
longer than 10 to 15 minutes make it difficult to fall asleep at
night — the time of day that sleep is most critical. Many
students believe that regular napping compensates for pulled
all-nighters, yet the opposite is true. Naps disrupt the normal
sleep schedule, making students accustomed to a false, choppy and
inadequate space of sleep time. If you’re tired during the
day, you’re just going to have to stick it out until
By adopting a rigorous system of sleep hygiene, students may not
only fight off sleeplessness, but also launch a preemptive strike
against it. At times, especially in a university environment, it
can be difficult to manage one’s time optimally, so as to be
able to enjoy a decent amount of sleep, which most researchers
agree is around eight hours. Still, the adoption of a sleep hygiene
program may be the best prevention against nights of frustration
and days of exhaustion.
“Together these non-pharmacological approaches are more
effective and longer-lasting than medications for insomnia,”
Olders said in a written statement.
“I think it’s possible for students to get a good
night’s sleep; I just don’t think it happens very often
… sleep is pretty much underrated or ignored on
campus,” Rieger said.
Given the hectic atmosphere of college, students should also
experiment with non-chemical means of reducing stress —
perhaps the most common factor behind involuntary sleeplessness.
Calming remedies such as yoga and meditation can provide valuable
opportunities for stress relief.
Also, students should consider a reduction of unnecessary
activities from one’s schedule. Sleeping, however, is an
essential activity, and its importance should be well heeded. It is
one of the body’s more delicate and mysterious systems, and
every attempt to preserve its balance should be made.
“Sleep is what helps me maintain normalcy in my life
… I would definitely believe it to be fundamental to my
schedule,” Itzkowitch said.
Sleeplessness can be combated. Through clinical and medicinal
means students can try to get a good night’s sleep instead of
spending hours counting sheep.