Sleep deprivation: self-inflicted torture?

With their numerous conflicting roles to juggle, many students at colleges around the US forego sleep. According to the Health Center at the University of Georgia, college students get an average of 6 to 6.9 hours of sleep. While some people need only six hours of sleep, others need up to nine. When someone who needs nine hours of sleep, and only gets six, the effects can be subtle to disastrous.

Some of the most common side effects of sleep deprivation are tiredness, irritability, decreased memory function, delayed reaction time, and aching muscles. These effects can often be subtle and unnoticeable to a sleep-deprived individual.   Yet when tests have been done to measure people’s working memory they show a significant decrease in function. In one test sleep deprived individuals were told to remember a sequence of three to four colored lights, and then repeat the sequence back. While the sleep deprived performed the task faster than the non-sleep deprived, those who had been sleep deprived had significantly more errors. Working memory is blunted by sleep deprivation, causing a person to lose focus and become unaware of their errors. While losing focus on a test is only harmful to an individual, losing focus on the road can be extremely detrimental to all. According to the CDC staying awake for over 24 hours causes the same impairment of someone having a BAC of 0.10%.   One of the greatest dangers of driving while sleep deprived is micro sleeping. Micro sleep is when an individual falls asleep for a few seconds. This is extremely dangerous, as it only takes a few seconds to swerve off the road. Driving while sleep deprived is the second leading cause of fatal accidents in the US behind drunk driving.

Many of these side effects are temporary, and can be reversed by getting enough sleep, but it is the cumulative effect that is often not addressed. People who sleep fewer hours are more prone to obesity and type-2 diabetes. One study done by Dr. Van Cauter of the University of Chicago took healthy people, and restricted their sleep to four hours of sleep per night for six days. At the end of the study, all patients were not only pre-diabetic; they also had increased appetite for calorie rich foods. This is because the hormone leptin, which tells the body when it is full, drops when deprived of sleep. A decreased ability to metabolize glucose and increase in appetite can lead to weight gain, and over the long-term can lead to obesity.

Humans are one of the only animals that purposely go without sleep. Cramming for a biology test or writing a 12-page paper at 2 a.m. means working against both time and your own body. In the end biology will win out, as even the most caffeinated students need to sleep.

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