Sleep is both a restorative and healing bodily function that is the engine of a healthy lifestyle. While scientists may not totally understand sleep, they can learn about its importance by studying how lack of sleep affects a person. Sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively affect mood, appetite, judgement and performance.
While a person sleeps, the glymphatic system secretes many of the proteins that build up in the brain while the person is awake. Accumulation of these proteins is associated with dementias like Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Rebecca Spiegel, an associate professor of neurology and director of sleep neurology at Stony Brook Medicine, said.
“If you don’t secrete these proteins they tend to accumulate in the cell and eventually cause cells and their neighbors to die,” Spiegel said.
Think of the brain as an office. As a person uses the office, dust and papers accumulate. Sleep is when the person leaves the office for the night and lets it be cleaned. Some people work best in a clean and pristine office. Others work better with a bit of a mess. At some point, the mess is so great that no one can work in the office. So it is with sleep. What works for some might not work for others, but there are generalities that apply to most.
“As a group, most college students really need at least eight hours of sleep,” Spiegel said.
She also said that with less than that, students will experience a crash. Fifty-five percent of drowsy driving fatalities occur with drivers under the age of 25, according to the Stanford University Center of Excellence for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Sleep Disorders. With a lack of sleep, students could experience some level of memory loss. Their immune systems may become compromised. It can even affect students’ long-term mental health.
One is not usually consciously aware of how performance, judgement and decision-making deteriorate.
“People are prone to be unconscious about the negative effects of sleep deprivation,” Julian Pessier, Ph.D., interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said. “They literally don’t see it.”
Luckily, sleep is elastic, meaning that one can make up for past sleep debt. Working to pay off that debt has been proven to help students manage stress, improve memory and concentration and promote their immune systems, Pessier and Spiegel said.
“If students take the effects of sleep deprivation seriously, they need to have humility in assessing their approach,” Pessier said. “With good sleep hygiene, students will find themselves more effective in every area of their life.”
The first step to becoming aware is to track how much sleep one gets and to ensure some type of consistency. It is called a sleep pattern for a reason. Sleep is like a muscle. One needs to exercise it regularly for best results, Pessier said.
Pessier recommended having a time ritual. About half an hour before going to bed, one should put away all daytime activities, including use of electronic devices. Exposure to light, especially close up as it is with phones, sends a message to the brain that it is still daytime, preventing people from sleeping restfully.
One should schedule sleep into his or her day and pace his or her work ahead of time to ensure a healthy sleep schedule. Decide when to go to bed based on how many hours you plan to sleep and when you need to wake up, Spiegel said.
“If you need to wake up at 7 a.m. to be compatible with your classes in college, we typically want you to go back eight hours,” Spiegel said.
After a week of consistent sleep, one should test himself or herself, asking “Do I really feel refreshed? Can I sustain myself until the time I go to sleep at night? When I hit the pillow, does it take 15 minutes to fall asleep, which indicates that I’m not severely sleepy?” If the answer is “no,” one should add at least half an hour of sleep consistently for a week and ask again, Spiegel said.
When schoolwork or other stresses require one to sleep less, Pessier recommended taking sleeping a little less every night rather than pulling an all-nighter. Spiegel said that one should make sure, at the very least, to sleep no less than three hours on a given night.
“I’ll have so many people who come in saying, ‘I want to be healthier, I’m gonna eat better, I’m gonna go to the gym,’” Pessier said. “I wish they would add, ‘I wanna really pay attention to my alcohol and drug intake, and I wanna pay attention to my sleep.’ Because they’re equally if not more important.”