Picture the following: you have three assignments due this week, are writing two semester tests and are preparing for an upcoming exam. To top it off, you have a social with friends and are going clubbing on the weekend. A busy schedule is nothing new to students, but then again, neither is sleep deprivation. Although it is often not seen as a serious concern, lack of sleep has several detrimental effects.

According to an article published in 2010 by the Journal of Adolescent Health, stress is cited as the major cause of sleep deprivation among university students. The study shows that stress has a bigger impact on a person’s quality of sleep than alcohol, caffeine or late-night browsing on the internet.

While there are those who can shut their eyes and immediately fall asleep, not everyone is so lucky. For most, going to sleep often becomes a problem because of noise pollution from cars hooting or dogs barking. Staying in a campus residence with noisy neighbours can be just as challenging. For a great deal of students, not going to bed at the right time is due to the endless amount of work that needs to be done. Whether it’s researching for an article, studying for a semester test or finishing off an assignment, labouring late into the night is often seen as the only way to cope with the workload.

However, sleep deprivation impacts negatively on your physical and mental health. The World Health Organisation states that “sleep is a basic human need and is essential for good health, good quality of life and performing well during the day.” According to a article by clinical psychologist Michael Breus, prolonged sleep deprivation decreases alertness, impairs memory and the brain’s ability to think and process information. The ability to memorise information and to recall it, as well as to maintain concentration during the day, are much greater when a person is well rested. Depression, moodiness and aggression are also a result of staying awake for too long.

Another article goes on to say that sleep deprivation has other serious health risks. These include heart disease, heart attacks, heart failure, strokes and diabetes. Negative effects of sleep deprivation have been linked to obesity, where loss of sleep causes an increase in the hormone ghrelin which makes people feel hungry. Sleep deprivation can even lead to death. When a person does not get enough sleep, their immune system is weakened and they are more prone to disease, especially respiratory infections.

Sleep deprivation also has an effect on your sex drive. Sleep-deprived people have reported lower libidos and have less interest in sex. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that men who don’t get enough sleep produce less testosterone. Sleep deprivation also has an effect on women’s sex drives and decreases the desire for sex.

There are ways of overcoming sleep deprivation and its negative effects. Since sleep deprivation might sometimes be a matter of choice (for example, choosing to pull an all-nighter to study for a test), deciding to go to bed earlier and getting enough sleep is a good way to start. Avoid spending the entire night cramming information into your head as this could possibly do more harm than good.

According to new research done by the University of California (UC), Berkeley, there are several side effects to pulling all-nighters, one of which is short-term euphoria. Researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School found that the neural pathway which stimulates emotions of reward and pleasure, especially after a sleepless night, may also lead to risk-taking behaviour. Lead author of the study, Matthew Walker, said that a sleep-deprived brain will swing to extremes and will not be optimal for wise decision-making.

Students often have hectic schedules and these are mostly out of their control. This is when time management is necessary. Try to develop a regular sleeping pattern: if you wake up early on weekdays, do it for the entire week, then sleep late on weekends. Messing up this schedule confuses your brain’s “internal clock” that keeps track of when you need to sleep and when you need to wake up.

Ambient noise can be reduced by wearing ear plugs or your headphones (if you can sleep with music, that is).

If you’re still battling with sleep deprivation, seeking help is another good idea. Take advantage of Student Support by asking for advice on how to deal with your sleep deprivation and the causes behind it.

Some people need more sleep than others. Do whatever works best for you, but be aware that just like sleep deprivation, too much sleep is also unhealthy.

Illustration: Eleanor Harding

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