Students no strangers to sleep starvation

Friday, December 12, 2008 | 1:00 p.m. CST


COLUMBIA — It’s 12:30 a.m. on Monday, and Jessica Barton shakes herself awake from a two-hour nap, bracing herself to delve into the world of organic chemistry, filled with the boiling point of alcohols and the nomenclature of ethers. She has three chapters to review before a test in the morning, and “before tonight, I didn’t know what they were.”

If you have trouble sleeping

  • Establish a good sleeping habit. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Relax before bed, as it can make it easier to fall asleep.
  • Exercise, but do so about five to six hours before your bedtime.
  • Don’t eat dinner right before you go to sleep.
  • Don’t drink coffee right before you go to sleep.
  • Don’t drink alcohol right before you go to sleep.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleeping. Do not use it for eating, working or watching TV.
  • Don’t lie in bed awake. Do something else until you feel tired. The anxiety of being unable to fall asleep can actually contribute to insomnia.

— Dr. Mahesh Thakkar; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Barton, a junior pre-veterinarian animal science major at MU, sits on the couch with her chemistry book in her lap and her laptop on the coffee table. She sips a 16-ounce can of double-strength, double-size Rockstar Juiced. One eight-ounce serving contains 80 milligrams of caffeine – about 15 milligrams less than a cup of coffee. Barton usually drinks two cans during her late-night sessions, the equivalent of about 3 1/2 cups of coffee.

When that doesn’t do the trick, she adds some Diet Mountain Dew or Vault and snacks on hard-boiled eggs because protein helps people stay awake.

Barton is one of the countless college students who routinely pulls all-nighters as she juggles the time demands of work, school and procrastination. She relies on sleepless nights to start studying for that test or to begin writing that 10-page paper due the next day. With the added pressures of finals this week, even more students deprive themselves of sleep in favor of extra (or, perhaps, initial) study time.

But sleep deprivation is not confined to students. Professionals might stay up an extra hour to accomplish more at the office; kids might stay up an extra two hours to play video games; teenagers might stay up an extra three hours to play around on the Internet.

“As a society, we have been losing sleep,” said Mahesh Thakkar, assistant professor and director of research in MU’s Department of Neurology. “In the last 10 years, we have lost about an hour of sleep. Before that, we were sleeping about 7 1/2 or eight hours. Now, we sleep about 6 1/2 or seven hours.”

Inadequate or erratic sleep can have serious consequences.

Studies have shown that adults who sleep less than six hours or more than nine hours for an extended period of time can be at increased risk of mortality. If an animal does not sleep at all, it dies.

Doctors also have seen a rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes in people who don’t get enough sleep, Thakkar said. A Harvard study found that toddlers who slept less than nine hours and watched a lot of TV were more likely to gain unhealthy weight.

Sleep loss reduces the capacity to function, which is why driving while tired can be so dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Wake Up and Get Some Sleep Campaign, “drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths.”

Sleep loss hampers learning and memory, too.

“Suppose you are going to study for your exams,” Thakkar said. “So what you do is you sit and read all night. You will not be able to retain all the information because the brain has not had a chance to do its housekeeping.

“If you study and then have a good night’s sleep, what the brain does is (it) gets a chance to store information. Your brain has a limited capacity, so it has to do two things: It has to remove junk, so old information, and it has to store information.”

No rest for the busy — or the procrastinator

Barton admits that when she deprives herself of sleep, she doesn’t function as well, and sometimes her speech becomes garbled. Despite that, she still waits until the last minute to study, especially for classes she doesn’t enjoy, such as organic chemistry.

She likened all-night studying to a bell curve: She remembers a lot in the beginning, but the effectiveness wanes after about three hours.

“I say it’s a bell,” Barton said. “But it’s a really lopsided bell, so it would make a really ugly sound.”

Three weeks before this semester’s finals, Barton didn’t even know when her tests were scheduled. “I’ll worry about it when I get there,” she said. But she already knows she won’t sleep much that week. It’s become her habit to wait until the night before a test to study. Until then, she procrastinates by playing video games, going to the barn to see her horse, drawing or talking on chat forums.

Barton also makes it a habit not to check her grades throughout the semester. If she knew she had a good grade, she said, she would study less. Knowing she had a bad grade would depress her too much to study more.

Although she had a 4.0 freshman year, her GPA has dropped to a little under 3.0; blame those chemistry classes.

Other students who manage to do well in school despite lack of sleep find no reason to change their habits either.

Brenna Gunn, a freshman business major at Moberly Community College, said she usually pulls three or four all-nighters a month, when she’ll go out with friends, do homework and work. She has three jobs: nurse technician at Adam’s Chiropractic Clinic, barista at Sven’s Kafe and Gallery and cook at the Cherry Street Artisan, where she opens at 7 a.m. on Sundays and closes three nights a week at midnight or 1 a.m. Then, she goes home and does homework.

She estimates she averages four to five hours of sleep a day, or 20 to 30 hours a week. That’s 15 hours a week less than she says she got in high school. But Gunn said she has adjusted to this pattern and can “function normally.”

“I definitely zone out a little bit more sometimes,” she said, “but my grades haven’t suffered yet.”

Going 'nocturnal'

It’s 2:45 a.m., and Barton has finished her second chapter. She starts to feel a little tired, so she drives 15 minutes to the barn so she can feed her horse, Dude, and drop off a rent check.

Going out in the middle of the night helps Barton relax and stay awake. A couple of weeks ago, she went to the recycling center at 2:30 a.m. and then to the barn a couple hours later. She’ll take breaks between chapters and draw. One night, she realized she had been drawing for six hours, and suddenly it was time to get to class to take a test.

“I finished my drawing, but I still had one chapter left,” she said.

Barton said she averages two all-nighters a week to study, write papers, draw or talk online “to other people who are either nocturnal or in Australia.” She met a guy from Australia online who thought she also lived there because she was always on at the same time as him.

For a time this semester, Barton went “nocturnal.” She would wake up at 7 p.m., stay up all night, go to class, return home and go back to sleep. Then she’d wake up at 7 p.m. and repeat the cycle.

More commonly, she said she gets very little sleep for half the week, then sleeps 15 hours straight for a few nights.

“I’m a sleep binger,” she said.

Barton’s abnormal sleeping pattern started when she was a teenager. She was unable to stop thinking, no matter how tired she was, and was plagued by insomnia in middle school and into high school. She would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling for hours.

“Eventually, I wrote enough novels in my brain that if I published them, I’d be a millionaire by now,” Barton said.

Barton’s therapist taught her to meditate by counting or using visualization processes. She even tried Buddhist prayers. The repetition helped her slow her brain down and move it to a state that was conducive to sleep.

What the awake mind misses

Anxiety and stress contribute to sleep disorders like insomnia, which is why many students lose sleep during exam time, Thakkar said. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “almost everyone occasionally suffers from short-term insomnia” and “about 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time.”

Sleep apnea is another sleep disorder that can undermine the quality of sleep. People stop breathing every few seconds, so they have to wake up to breathe. Sleep apnea can be a byproduct of obesity as fat builds up and the respiratory tract closes.

Someone who has consistent trouble sleeping and doesn’t regularly get 7 1/2 to eight hours of sleep a night should see a doctor, Thakkar said.

“Sleep is important to life,” Thakkar said. “If you listen to your grandmother, there are three important things for developing: nutrition, physical activity – exercise – and sleep.

“We always talk about good nutrition and good exercise, but who talks about good sleep? We have completely forgotten sleep.”

But the brain has not.

If deprived, the brain tries to reacquire the lost sleep by making the person feel tired, Thakkar said. Then, when the body does fall asleep, it compensates by sleeping more, a phenomenon known as sleep rebound.

“We should not take sleep for granted,” Thakkar said. “If sleep was not important, then nature would not have kept a rhythm of sleep, a pressure to go to sleep.”

There are three states humans can be in: wakefulness, non-REM sleep or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Thakkar said doctors look at brain activity, muscle activity and eye movement activity to distinguish between the three.

During wakefulness, brain activity, muscle activity and eye movement activity are high.

As a person begins to feel drowsy and drift into non-REM sleep, brain activity, muscle activity and eye movements slow. There are four stages of non-REM sleep, and researchers still don’t know exactly what function each serves. But Thakkar said they allow the brain to start quieting down, do its housekeeping and transition to REM sleep.

REM sleep is sometimes called “paradoxical sleep,” or, as Thakkar described it, an “awake mind in a sleeping body.” Brain activity is fast during REM, just as it is during wakefulness. There is no muscle activity. Eye movement is phasic, meaning there are bursts of activity followed by periods of no activity. This is when dreams occur.

So sleep is not a passive state, Thakkar said. Although the brain is not performing its highest activity, it’s not the same as being unconscious. For example, most people would wake to a knock on the door if they were sleeping but not if they were unconscious.

When the night begins, the brain spends about 90 minutes in the non-REM stages of sleep, and then it finishes with 90 seconds of REM sleep, Thakkar said. As the night progresses, non-REM stages decrease in length, and REM sleep increases.

Infants spend 80 to 90 percent of their sleeping time in REM, which is believed to be necessary for development.

“A good sleep habit is very important and should be cultivated from childhood,” Thakkar said.

But Anna Wilson, a senior anthropology and Spanish student at MU, said her sleep habit involves three to four hours a night and an hour-long nap when she can. On weekend nights, she might get six to eight hours of sleep. She said she averages two all-nighters a month to study.

“I feel like I function pretty well,” Wilson said. “It’s been like this for about four years now.”

Wilson said she doesn’t go out and party, so she’s not wasting her body, but she will spend time with friends or do homework late into the night. During finals, Wilson asks for time off from her job as a barista at the Cherry Street Artisan “so I can study more, but that doesn’t mean I’m sleeping more.”

Wilson said her mother, who works at MU’s Student Health Center, worries about her sleeping patterns and once gave her an article about how much better the brain functions when it gets enough sleep.

But Wilson said her grades are good, and she has not experienced any problems, except “the other day, my eyes wouldn’t focus. I couldn’t read the clock on the wall, so I figured that was probably from exhaustion.”

Lights out; good morning

It’s 4 a.m. and Barton has gotten through half of her last chapter. She decides to finish the rest later. She boils a pot of water on the stove to make a cup of black tea to help her sleep.

It’s 4:30 a.m., and it’s finally time for bed.

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