Running on Empty: College Students and Sleep Deprivation

Hidden Treasure: Around the World in 120 Minutes (or less)
July 10, 2017
Texas Reds Festival Vendor’s Application Now Available
July 11, 2017

By Megan Rodriguez

As she packed the car for her monthly trip from Texas A&M University to Dallas, Allison Granberry struggled to find energy for the three-hour drive ahead. After weeks of restless sleep and having been up for nearly 20 hours straight that day, Allie convinced herself she could stay awake for the routine journey home.

Before she even left the College Station city limits, Granberry found herself fighting exhaustion. She admits she was not completely aware of her surroundings when another driver made a sudden move.

“An 18-wheeler in front of me hit the brakes to turn right and so did the car directly in front of me, and I wasn’t paying attention, just trying to keep my eyelids open,” Granberry says. “And I knew that even if I hit the brakes I was going to slam into the back of the car, so I had to veer off the road really sharply and drive my car into a ditch to avoid a car accident. That was very terrifying.”

Unfortunately, it was not Granberry’s first time being in a dangerous situation as a result of sleep deprivation. Like most college students, it will likely not be her last.

Driving is not the only thing affected by sleep deprivation, according to Dr. Rajesh Harrykissoon, chief of staff at College Station Medical Center. Harrykissoon specializes in pulmonary medicine, sleep medicine, and hospice and palliative care.

“Some things are known and some things are hypothesized and are currently being researched,” Harrykissoon says. “A few things that are known, for example, is the effect of sleep deprivation on mood, pain perception, cognitive functioning, and motor activity.”

Sleep deprivation has the same effect as drunkenness, according to Harrykissoon. He says he thinks it’s surprising how sleep deprivation is not taken more seriously in light of the facts.

“In terms of motor activity, there is measurable psychomotor slowing with sleep deprivation,” Harrykissoon says, “such that after a night of sleep deprivation, the mental slowing and psychomotor functioning is retarded in a way that is similar to being legally intoxicated with alcohol. The interesting thing is we don’t think twice about students and workers showing up being sleep deprived, but they would definitely get in trouble and potentially lose their occupation if they showed up with alcohol intoxication, yet the performance for both may be the same.”

Driving while drowsy is a major hazard on roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, there were 864 fatalities recorded in their database in 2014 and 83,000 crashes each year from 2005 to 2009, all related to sleep deprivation.

There are few things in a person’s life untouched by sleep, according to Steven Woltering, assistant professor and director of the Neurological Lab for Learning and Development at Texas A&M University.

“We truly underestimate how important sleep and napping can be for our heads, our hearts, our physic, our emotional functioning, and basically anything that has to do with our mental and physical health,” Woltering says.

Sleep is one of the human body’s many circadian rhythms, according to Dr. David Earnest who teaches in the department Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics.

“Circadian rhythms refer to all those rhythms that are part of our individual cells, our body and our behaviors that reoccur on a 24-hour basis,” Earnest says. “Our internal biological clocks control these rhythms, so the clocks don’t need the daily solar cycles to drive them.”

Among the general public, sleep is the most well-known circadian rhythm, according to Earnest. “Many biological processes – not just sleep/wake – but enzyme levels, metabolites, neurotransmitters in the brain, many different things are controlled so that they have 24-hour rhythms,” Earnest says. “The 24-hour timing is important for the body because it keeps everything in tune with the environment, so basically our daily solar cycle.”

Earnest says maintaining sleep’s natural cycle also plays a vital role in preventing certain disorders.

“Research shows that particularly when you disrupt these 24-hour rhythms with shift work-type cycles it has dramatic consequences in terms of increase in incidents of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders that fall in that category,” Earnest said.

Research has also shown an increase in breast cancer and strokes in patients with a history of shift work, according to Earnest.

While there is still much unknown, the effects of sleep deprivation are clear and exhibited through recognizable symptoms, according to Dr. Paul Hardin, distinguished professor of biology and director of the Center for Biological Clocks Research at Texas A&M University.

“We don’t really yet understand what causes us to sleep as far as the homeostatic process, and we don’t know why we sleep,” Hardin says. “All we know is that if we don’t get enough sleep it has very severe consequences to our mental acuity.”

Woltering says more sleep research is needed among college students to find the root of problems we rarely relate to sleepiness. “I think it’s really important to look at the effects of sleep, particularly in college student age, for college dropout rates,” Woltering says. “I think there is a big correlation between the two, as well as for their own risk-taking behaviors and safety.”

Not having a consistent sleep schedule, says Earnest, is one of the most common issues among college student sleep habits. “What typically happens for college students is exams come up, papers are due, you have social events, so what happens is you start to vary from day to day and week to week the amount of sleep and the timing of when you go to sleep,” Earnest says.

These types of irregular sleep habits confuse the body clocks, according to Earnest, because people end up staying awake when the body is used to sleeping. He recommends keeping any changes within two to three hours of each other from night to night to avoid the ramifications such as disruption of internal harmony and impacts on learning and memory.

Earnest notes a difference in students who are chronically sleep deprived as opposed to acutely sleep deprived. “Acute sleep deprivation is what many experience right before an exam, and that is self-imposed for the most part,” Earnest says. “For one or two nights you get two or three hours of sleep. Chronic is someone who normally needs eight hours of sleep who only gets five to six hours of sleep every night.”

Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to severe problems down the line, according to John Childers, RRT, RPSGT, supervisor of the CHI St. Joseph Health Sleep Center. “They say there’s three things that makes for a healthy body: nutrition, exercise and sleep,” Childers says. “If any of those three things are failing, your health will decline. I equate it a lot to cigarette smoking. A couple years of cigarette smoking probably won’t cause you to have lung cancer or emphysema, but 30 years increases that chance greatly. Same thing with sleep. A few years of poor sleep hygiene while you’re in college is probably not going to be the death of you, but 30 years of ignoring sleep problems can lead to a lot of other problems, which will be the death of you.”

According to Hardin, there are a myriad of symptoms that point directly to sleep deprivation. “The problem will manifest itself by low performance, increased sickness because sleep deprivation leads to a depression of the immune system, an increased propensity to doze off at inappropriate times and increased irritability,” Hardin says. “Any of those effects are telltale signs that you are not getting enough sleep.”

Earnest says studying all night will not only cause sleep deprivation, but is not beneficial for retaining knowledge. “The all-nighter is the worst thing you can do for two main reasons,” Earnest says. “One, you’re putting yourself in a position if you get any sleep it’s going to be during the wrong time. Secondly, when you pull an all-nighter you’re trying to swim upstream of the normal timing for cognitive performance. Really what you’re doing is not making effective use of the time. What I tell people a better alternative is to study as much as you can and at least get some sleep and then wake up early to study before an exam. That will allow you to sleep more at the time you are normally asleep.”

Hardin says stress is the main reason people have problems getting enough sleep at night.

“Everyone has something going on in their life which causes them to lose sleep, whether it’s studying, preparing grant proposals, or writing papers, child care or any sort of health issues,” Hardin says. “There are lots of stressors out there which cause sleep deprivation. Trying to minimize those stressors is really important.”

Dr. Carl Boethel says sleep deprivation in college students is largely based on lifestyle choices. Boethel is a pulmonary medicine and sleep medicine specialist and director of the Baylor Scott & White Health division of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine. “Probably the worst thing when it comes to college students is their tablets and their cell phones,” Boethel says. “Cell phones and tablets secrete a wavelength of light that is in the blue wavelength spectrum. What it does is it tells the brain that it’s daylight. If you are exposed to that bright light late at night your brain will not secrete melatonin, and your body does not know that it’s time to go to sleep.”

Techniques that can reduce stress can also help students fall asleep, including breathing exercises. Earnest says keeping meal times consistent and avoiding certain bedtime snacks also can improve sleep.

“Eating meals at a regular time is really important because those are signals feeding back to our body clocks,” Earnest says. “If you eat at regular times or skip a main meal like dinner, all those sorts of things disrupt our body timing in terms of metabolism. Some nutrients, particularly saturated fats – which is a characteristic of a lot of the foods we eat for snacks late at night – actually affect our body clocks and start shifting them around.”

While workouts can help students fall asleep, the time at which they choose to go to the gym can hinder sleep, according to Harrykissoon. “Exercise that is done earlier in the day is beneficial for sleep, but exercise done within two hours of bedtime is usually disruptive because the individual is still on an adrenaline high,” Harrykissoon says. “Watch the caffeine intake,” he adds. “Some people are very sensitive to caffeine and if you are, avoiding caffeine after noon is advisable.” Even chocolates have too much caffeine for some people, and all the marketed energy products usually have caffeine as a main ingredient.

Childers also points out that stimulants only add to a person’s stress. “The foods you crave are changed because you are looking for things that are stimulants,” Childers explains. “During the day, you are looking for carbs and sugars as stimulants. … I would say anxiety or stimulants is number one cause of insomnia or sleepiness, and sometimes they go hand in hand. If you are taking in a lot of caffeine and stimulants you are more predisposed to having anxiety. By removing those stimulants a lot of time the anxiety reduces or goes away.”

Avoiding alcoholic beverages before bed is also crucial to a good night’s sleep. “Avoid alcohol because even though alcohol promotes sleep, it disrupts sleep,” Childers says. “It may help you go to sleep, but you’re going to wake up more often during the night.”

Harrykissoon says completing both mental and physical tasks before bedtime is essential to a restful night’s sleep. “Some people put off things until close to bedtime, which is a form of procrastination,” Harrykissoon says. “They will put off not just actual concrete tasks to do during the day but mental tasks.”

Avoid mental procrastination by setting aside time to think before bed, he advises. Other suggestions include using bedrooms only for sleep and setting a nighttime routine to alert the brain when it is time to sleep.

Naps can be helpful for combatting the body’s natural energy dips during daylight hours, according to Boethel, but the need for long naps during the day indicates sleep deprivation. “Strategically, napping for about 15 to 20 minutes is probably long enough,” Boethel says. “If you’re sleeping longer than that you’re probably really sleep deprived and just need to sleep more at night time.”

Childers said the most important part of having healthy sleep habits is to practice good sleep hygiene. “There’s a term we use called sleep hygiene, which refers to good practices that will promote a good night’s sleep,” Childers says. “Things such as a good routine, avoid stimulants, avoid naps, take a warm bath or shower about two hours before bed, do something relaxing before bedtime, and avoid alcohol. A lot of these things are not practical for students because their lifestyle is just so crazy, but you have to do your best.”