A student slumped over a carrel in Schow Science Library or dozing away on a couch in Paresky Center is no unfamiliar sight. We have all been there. From guzzling the lifeblood of every college student – caffeine – to drifting off in a 9 a.m. lecture, students at the College have a hard time with sleep.
Unsurprisingly, health experts at the College say that most students are sleep-deprived, largely due to a culture of jam-packed schedules and work-intensive environments. “Sleep is the first thing to go when things get really busy and stressful,” Laini Sporbert, health educator and director of Peer Health, said. “Students feel like in order to get their work done and be productive, they have to stay up to do it. [The College] is definitely a high-achieving, high-stress environment that feeds into that notion.”
For Professor of Biology Matt Carter, examining sleep loss is vital. This past Winter Study, Carter taught “The Science of Sleep,” a course aimed at examining the impact sleep can have on a person’s biological and social wellbeing. He believes that even though the damage sleep loss incurs is largely “unseen,” this does not diminish the importance of discussing the problem. “If you toured a college campus, and every single person you saw was smoking, you would notice,” Carter said. “You’d say, ‘There’s something really crazy about this school – everybody is smoking.’ Or if everyone was eating junk food, and everyone was bragging about it, you’d say, ‘That’s weird – they have really unhealthy eating habits.’” But when it comes to unhealthy sleep habits, Carter explained, “People just think it’s normal. It’s an invisible health problem.”
Carter, Sporbert and Resident Psychiatrist at Integrative Wellbeing Services Dr. Lara Aillon-Sohl all feel that there is a culture of guilt associated with sleep. Commonly heard phrases from students include “I feel too guilty to go to bed when I have to study more” and “I can’t go to sleep now. I haven’t done enough.” With students striving towards high standards in a pressurized environment, sleep falls to the bottom of the priority list.
Furthermore, sleep is not associated with productivity. Carter believes that the issue is not so much a lack of awareness – everyone knows that sleep is important – but how students make day-to-day prioritizations without acknowledging their long-term effects. “If you have a physics test tomorrow, and you feel like you haven’t studied well, people make these day-to-day decisions,” he said. “[You say,] ‘Well, I have to stay up because I don’t know it.’ And that makes perfect sense – the problem is people don’t think of the long term… People don’t consider the next step, that is, ‘Therefore, on Thursday, I need to clear my schedule to make up for sleep.’”
While there is a sense of guilt associated with sleeping, Carter noted that, conversely, there is a “badge of honor” that comes with getting too little sleep. Sporbert agreed; in her interactions with students, she sometimes sees students “one-upping” each other in terms of how little sleep they got the night before.
But the problem goes beyond pulling an occasional all-nighter. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a build-up of sleep debt, a problem that Carter believes most students face. “There’s a difference between feeling mildly tired if you’re reading and … staring at your computer screen and [not being able to] make it past the first few sentences because you’re so tired you can’t even function,” he said.
Luckily, it is possible to make up for such a deficit. Unfortunately, this cannot be done in one sitting, and it requires significant patience, regularity and time. Carter recommends small steps. “People who build up a massive credit card debt and are overwhelmed because they owe so much are counseled to [not] freak, just pay it off slowly … the best you can do is pay it off in chunks,” he said.
Beyond quantity, quality of sleep is also something stuwdents struggle with. Inability to fall asleep, difficulty staying asleep and general restless nights contribute to feelings of persistent fatigue. While this is a complex issue, there are things that students can do to alleviate it.
One solution is to maintain good sleep hygiene. Sporbert defines sleep hygiene as “good sleeping habits.” Developing such healthy sleep practices involves “giving yourself eight [hours], getting sunlight early in the day, keeping your bedroom cool, dark and quiet, using ear plugs if you need to and giving your body time to relax,” she said. “Try to find a balance – [listen] to what your body needs.”
Aillon-Sohl discussed the option of stimulus-control therapy, in which subjects disassociate their beds from sleepless nights and persist in sleeping only when they are tired.
“When you lie down in that bed at night, you want your brain to observe, ‘Oh, this is something we do when we sleep,’” she said. “If you observe that, after 10 to 15 minutes, you’re still clearly awake, you have to get out of that bed. You have to do something calming – non-stimulating – until you feel sleepy again.”
Conversations about the importance of sleep can often be framed with scare tactics, but many now advocate for a benefits-oriented approach, shifting focus to the positive effects of sufficient sleep. The list is endless; muscle growth, memory consolidation and the brain’s clearing of metabolic waste are all processes that occur primarily during sleep. Ultimately, Carter, Sporbert and Aillon-Sohl emphasized the extent to which getting sufficient sleep can improve one’s quality of life.
“[Sleep-deprivation] stems from a pursuit of a balanced life and wanting to fit it all in and misidentifying that cutting out the sleep is serving you well, when it is in fact really decreasing your quality of life during your wakeful hours,” Aillon-Sohl said. “[Sleep] is not an indulgence. It is a natural gift to help with our health and wellbeing.”
Carter mentioned the commonly touted “S model,” where people say, “School, study, sports and sleep – choose three.” “You don’t have to have the four [elements] in equal proportions at all times,” he said. “There are times when you concentrate on your schoolwork and times when you concentrate on social fun or extracurriculars… You just have to be deliberate about getting that fourth ‘S.’”