All-nighters take a toll on sleepy students

Lack of sleep harms students’ health and grades, University experts say.

by Britt Johnsen

Electrical engineering junior Micheal Prom said he gets five hours of sleep per night, at best.

Prom said sleeping ranks below school and other activities on his priorities list.

“I’d rather cut into sleeping time than anything else,” he said.

As the semester winds down, sleep deprivation affects students’ health and academics, health officials said. Many students will stay up late studying for finals and writing papers, and it might do them more harm than good.

Students such as Prom are typical. A 2001 Boynton Health Service survey showed less than 1 percent of students said they feel they get enough sleep.

The random-sample, mail-in questionnaire surveyed 3,000 University students.

The survey showed that 48.3 percent of students have difficulty sleeping, and of that group, 43.3 percent said fatigue affected their academics.

Dave Golden, Boynton Health Service public health director, said Boynton often sees students who come in worried they have mononucleosis or some other health problem. Often, he said, students just need to get more sleep.

Losing sleep can make the immune system weaker and susceptible to infections, Golden said.

He said Boynton always encourages those who lose sleep or have trouble sleeping to avoid nicotine, eating, caffeine, alcohol, television and exercise before going to bed. These things all stimulate the body and prevent uninterrupted sleep.

The Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at the Hennepin County Medical Center often sees students who say they feel they are affected – academically or otherwise – by sleep deprivation, said Michel Cramer-Bornemann, a member at the sleep disorders center.

He said many students who come in have had a car accident or are not doing well in school because they do not get enough sleep.

Cramer-Bornemann said everyone needs an average of seven or eight hours of sleep per night.

“You can’t condition yourself,” he said. “If you don’t get that, you’re going to pay.”

A variety of health problems follow sleep deprivation. One is delayed sleep phase syndrome, which Cramer-Bornemann said is common in college students. The disease makes a person unable to fall asleep until between midnight and 3 a.m. This is problematic for most students who have morning commitments, because in that time they are not getting enough sleep.

Not only are students’ memories and safety affected, but as sleep deprivation occurs, students often develop sleep disorders.

In addition to sleepwalking and insomnia, other disorders such as narcolepsy and obstructive sleep

apnea can be developed. Narcolepsy causes a person to spontaneously and uncontrollably fall asleep, while obstructive sleep apnea can cause a person to stop breathing when he or she is asleep.

Cramer-Bornemann said most people should find their biological sleep time, a time that allows a person to fall asleep within 15 minutes of hitting the pillow. For most, it is going to bed between 10 p.m. and midnight, and waking up between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.

He said most people do not regard sleep loss as a big deal and, on average, lose about two hours of sleep each night. By the week’s end Friday, many have lost 10 hours of sleep, which is more than a full night.

Cumulatively losing sleep is a problem, Cramer-Bornemann said. In driving tests, those who are sleep-deprived perform similarly to those who are legally intoxicated. It also impairs short-term memory, he said.

“That means a lot when you’re cramming for exams,” Cramer-Bornemann said.

Sleep disorders are diagnosable and treatable with tests and medication, but most students just need to catch up on sleep, he said.

However, catching up can be difficult when studying or other work needs to be done. To catch up, he said, most people need approximately 30 percent of what they lost. For those who are losing 10 hours of sleep per week, that’s a three-hour nap.