Harvard study exposes dangers of sleep deprivation
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
A couple of weeks ago, Biatriz Martinez, CSOM '10, had to make a trip to the campus infirmary. She had been suffering from continuous nausea and an all-day headache. They told her she was suffering from a caffeine overdose.
Martinez' case is not an isolated instance. Many students find every possible means to keep themselves awake as long as possible, and it has subsequently become the norm for college students to survive on as little as three to four hours of sleep per night, with many students even becoming used to pulling all-nighters.
Although common among college students, a recent study conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers showed that frequent all-nighters can be extremely harmful. Harvard's research compared students who had slept for eight hours and students who had stayed awake for 35 hours. Each group of students was placed under an MRI scanner while they were shown different pictures. Focusing on the psychological effects of sleep deprivation, the researchers discovered that the second group of students showed more intense emotional reactions to the pictures.
Nancy Baker, the associate director of University Health Services, said that sleep deprivation is a very common problem among Boston College students. "Most students are unaware that their illnesses are caused by lack of sleep. They come in for other health problems such as anxiety, migraines, inability to concentrate, and other psychiatric symptoms. These illnesses are often caused by sleep deprivation," she said. Baker also said that in extreme cases, students may develop severe respiratory problems and failure of the immune system. "Sleep deprivation has a direct impact on health. Our immune system just cannot work at the optimal level without sufficient hours of sleep."
Sleep deprivation is not only harmful to one's physical health, it is also detrimental to one's psychological well-being. As researchers discover more about the clinical connection between sleep and mental health, it is becoming more apparent that the balance is critical.
Elizabeth Kensinger, a professor in the psychology department who teaches cognitive and affective neuroscience, said that lack of sleep can cause serious psychological disorders. "While we sleep, our brains release different neurotransmitters. Sleep deprivation causes imbalance of major neurotransmitters, which are often related to emotions and cognition," Kensinger said.
She also said that sleep is directly connected to judgment and control of the emotions. "During sleep, we store the emotions that we experience throughout the day in different areas of our brains. Let's say that a student falls asleep right after she has a huge fight with her roommate. While she is sleeping, her brain starts to process her intense emotions, separating them from the content and storing them into different parts of the brain. When she wakes up, she will be able to evaluate more objectively and clearly," Kensinger said. "Therefore, when students are functioning on only three hours of sleep, they will often experience extreme mood swings and impaired judgment."
While most students are aware of the negative effects of sleep deprivation described in the studies, they often find no other option than staying up all night - with 10 cups of coffee, four Snickers bars, and No-Doz caffeine pills - to complete assignments.
"I cannot have eight hours of sleep when I have my philosophy paper, cognitive psychology exam, and Hebrew quiz all due the next day," said Cathleen Chopra-McGown, A&S '10. "In addition to all the classes, average BC students are expected to get involved in extracurricular activities. I often feel that I have no other option but to cut down the hours of sleep," she said.
Some believe that getting the recommended eight hours of sleep at BC is simply not possible. Nevertheless, Kensinger says that students need to learn to manage their schedules better, so that they can get a sufficient amount of sleep. "After all, most people have limited number of hours they can spend on studying," she said. "More hours doesn't mean better quality."