Restless nights: Dealing with sleep deprivation

It has become a common reality for undergraduate students to sacrifice hours of sleep. Reasons could range from staying up to accomplish school work, getting home late because of traffic conditions, or simply spending time on social media, video games, or other hobbies.

Such are the reasons for sleep loss that were recurrently cited by majority of the respondents in a survey conducted by The LaSallian, which revealed that 60 percent of them usually get only six hours of sleep or less per night—below the seven to nine hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), an organization in the United States that focuses on sleep education and advocacy.

As the body tries to catch up on accumulating sleep loss, also termed “sleep debt”, the feeling of full rest and peak performance can become distant and unfamiliar, with chronic sleep deficiency diminishing many aspects of one’s day-to-day functions.

Life in rhythm

Serving as the body’s resting phase, sleep is regulated by the circadian rhythm and the homeostatic system. The former is considered the body’s built-in clock that determines different biological cycles—including the sleep-wake cycle, which follows a 24-hour scheme and relies on external cues like light intensity.

Meanwhile, the homeostatic system is determined mainly by physiological exhaustion, with intense brain activity in particular tending to increase one’s need for sleep. The human body, after all, was not built to run continuously for 24 hours or more without taking meaningful breaks in between.

Often, the body will find ways to compensate for mounting sleep deficiency, such as through recovery sleep. Describing recovery sleep as “deeper than a typical night of sleep,” Duke-NUS Associate Professor Dr. Joshua Gooley says that this type of sleep “occurs when a person pays back [their] sleep debt.”

This can at times manifest as “oversleeping”, which survey respondent Alain Geronimo (II, BS-BIO) identifies is the main effect brought about by sleep deprivation, leading to “loss of time to do other stuff.”

Cognitive consequences

Noting that a sleep-deprived and unrefreshed brain would often face difficulties in accomplishing cognitive tasks, Gooley reveals, “A recent study in undergraduate students showed students with healthier sleep patterns performed about a letter grade higher than students with short and irregular sleep.” Using DLSU’s rating scale, it would be equivalent to a 1.0 grade difference.

Interestingly, in the administered survey, most respondents did not enumerate declined cognitive processing per se, but instead pointed to issues concerning energy levels, describing their “drowsiness”, “tiredness”, and “lack of drive [toward] finishing tasks” as detrimental to their academic performance.

Expressing that she “[feels] airheaded” and experiences “lutang-ness” due to sleep deprivation, Justine Naco (I, CHY-FS) elaborates, “If I just recently started lacking sleep, I can feel oddly energized and can get things done. Over time, I start to lose interest in school work.”

Rianne Yap (I, BSBCHEM), meanwhile, indicates dealing with a “lack of focus” and “short attention span”—a sentiment echoed by 13 other respondents—after getting approximately five hours of sleep on average per night.

This coincides with the research of Michelle Stepan, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab, that found “lapses in attention” roughly triple for participants who lack sleep. But the consequences do not stop there. The study further recorded a 30 percent error rate in “placekeeping”, the ability to identify one’s place in executing multi-step tasks, such as laboratory procedures, without skipping or repeating steps.

Mistakes in placekeeping may not seem like a big deal to most students, but Stepan explains that this could affect one’s problem solving skills, “Sleep deprivation could impair your ability to think through difficult problems…increasing the likelihood [of making] an error on exam questions—such as math or logic problems—that require you to perform a series of steps or assess different possible solutions.”

Finding solutions

Inasmuch as sleep loss puts the body under physical and psychological stress, chronic stress and other disorders can themselves cause the difficulties people experience when trying to get sufficient sleep—creating a paradoxical dilemma that is not so easily solved by saying “sleep early.”

Although popular, relying on coffee and “power napping” might not be advisable. Stepan shares that, based on another experiment, caffeine helped maintain “lower-level abilities” like staying attentive; however, for “higher-order” or more complex skills, “neither caffeine nor brief naps mitigated [cognitive] deficits.”

Discussing their strategies to get better sleep, 56 percent of the survey respondents specify trying to finish their school work ahead of time—key word, of course, is “try”. Additionally, Angeline Melegrito (III, BSE-ENG) and Alexander Rocha (IV, AB-ISE) consider ASMR sounds and white noise videos on YouTube, respectively, as effective for facilitating sleep.

Meanwhile, the NSF suggests a number of practices: sticking to a sleep schedule, including during the weekends; keeping one’s bedroom temperature relatively cool; and winding down by avoiding exciting activities, distracting noise and lights, and electronics before bedtime.

Similarly, Gooley highlights the importance of “sleep hygiene” or developing relaxing “pre-bedtime routines”, such as through “[managing the] use of digital devices prior to bedtime, so that [people] don’t get carried away and go to bed too late.”

While the proper and most effective interventions are still being investigated by scientists, it seems nothing can quite come close to improving one’s body and mind than getting a good night’s rest.

Warren Chua

By Warren Chua

Erinne Ong

By Erinne Ong

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