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Local expert discusses effects of sleep deprivation

Thursday, July 26, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Sophomore photojournalism major Bridget Murphy studies on the second floor of Ellis Library for her macroeconomics final. Students juggle classes, extracurriculars and other responsibilities and often struggle to get enough sleep.

COLUMBIA — Many students struggle with sleep deprivation. With multiple classes and a multitude of available extracurriculars, all requiring time, it can be hard to get enough sleep.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation? What can be done to get more and better sleep?

I posed these questions, and more, to Munish Goyal, an assistant professor of neurology at MU's School of Medicine.

Q: What are the effects of short-term (a few nights) sleep deprivation?

A: Short-term sleep loss can lead to drowsiness, inability to focus, poor concentration, impaired memory, increased number of errors, reduced precision of performance, occurrence of micro-sleep episodes during wakefulness, irritability and emotional issues.

Q: What are the effects of long-term (weeks or longer) sleep deprivation?

A: Long-term sleep deprivation has been associated with cognitive, behavioral, emotional and metabolic problems, such as decreased cognitive function and performance, irritability and emotional liability, increased blood sugars, weight gain, increased risk of substance abuse and depression.

Q: What other issues or conditions is sleep deprivation related to?

A: It is noteworthy that inadequate sleep can lead to errors at the workplace or during driving. Per U.S. National Highway Safety Administration estimate, there are more than 100,000 crashes — at least 4 percent of fatal crashes — and 71,000 injuries due to drowsy driving every year.

Sleepiness or lack of sleep has been implicated in some major disasters like the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Q: Are there any benefits to sleep deprivation? If so, how do they compare to the negative effects?

A: It has been reported that sleep deprivation might improve depressive symptoms in some patients. However, there are other drawbacks, such as sleepiness, poor memory and concentration and sometimes worsening of depression.

Q: Are you currently doing any sleep deprivation studies?

A: No, but we are currently starting a study in patients with Restless Leg Syndrome. That can be a significant contributor to poor sleep quality leading to difficulty falling asleep and insomnia and decreased sleep at night.

Q: Is the habit of "cramming" correlated to any other health disorders?

A: Cramming overnight — staying awake through the night — can obviously cause mental exhaustion. There is accompanied sleep deprivation, which in turn causes all its potential bad effects mentioned above as with short-term sleep deprivation.

Q: Are the detrimental effects of caffeine related to these problems?  If so, how much?

A: Caffeine is the most popular and widely consumed stimulant in the world. An average cup of coffee contains 50 to 150 mg of caffeine.

Caffeine causes increased mental alertness and wakefulness, to some extent. However, excessive consumption might cause palpitations, high blood pressure, gastric acid secretion, anxiety, tremors and insomnia with lack of ability to fall asleep or get good quality sleep.                   

Q:How can students avoid sleep deprivation?

A: Regular sleep hours — the right amount of sleep for an individual that leaves them refreshed and able to function well in the daytime — is the goal.

This amount can vary between individuals but is usually between six and a half to eight hours. We are a university town — it is recommended for the students to have a regular sleep schedule, at least seven or eight hours a day, and practice good sleep hygiene with regular sleep/wake hours — weekdays and weekends.

Avoid caffeine or any other stimulants, especially in the afternoon, to avoid any difficulty falling asleep at night. Smoking and alcohol consumption can significantly worsen sleep quality. Relaxation before bedtime is very important for a good night of sleep.

Finally, if anyone is experiencing issues with their sleep on a regular basis — be it difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early in morning — or excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, too much movement at night or lack of good quality, restorative sleep, they should discuss with their family doctor or consider an evaluation by a sleep medicine physician.


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