It probably comes as no surprise that college students make up one of the unhealthiest demographics in the country. Part of it comes from the “invincibility-complex” that plagues every incoming freshman. Trust me, I’ve been there. I can’t even begin to count how many times I headed to class in shorts and a t-shirt when the temperatures were below freezing outside. But then when you graduate, you realize just how senseless you were all those days and you finally understand that if you actually took a few seconds to take care of yourself that you wouldn’t have been sick as often as you were.
This fall, about 16 million students will be enrolled in college, and most, if not all, will endure many long, sleepless nights. In college the all-nighter is almost a rite of passage. For some of us, we stay up out of necessity, but for others it’s purely out of choice. It often goes unrealized, though, just how devastating the effects of losing sleep can have on the human body.
The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age. Young-adults on average require at least eight hours of sleep per night, but they typically come up short by about 12 hours each and every week. This sleep deficit builds up over time and ultimately causes serious health issues in the future. This is something that college students rarely think, but in reality they should be paying greater attention to it.
Now, you may be asking yourself: What does sleep do for me except for maybe taking away precious hours of my day when I could be out having fun? According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), sleep is necessary for our nervous system to function properly. Sleep gives neurons a chance to undergo essential repair. Without sleep, neurons become depleted in energy and become concentrated with byproducts of normal cellular activity. Sleep also is an essential element in the release of growth hormone in children, and has similarly been shown to reduce the breakdown and increase the production of essential proteins in the body that are needed for cell growth and repair.
In terms of our ability to function properly, not getting enough sleep makes you more likely to make errors, impairs your concentration and deteriorates your memory. Taken far enough, sleep deprivation can lead to wild mood swings and hallucinations. Most importantly, it is thought that the lack of sleep impairs your immune system and the body’s ability to fight off illness. Sleep is considered essential to the body mechanisms for mounting an immune response by conserving energy. So, whenever you deprive yourself of sleep you are essentially undercutting the effects of any immune response that your body puts up.
Sleep has also been found to play a major role in the progression of chronic disease in the United States. In fact, numerous studies have shown that the lack of sleep is closely linked to the development and management of a whole array of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and depression. Research has found that a lack of sleep increases one’s risk of developing type two diabetes by suggesting that regulating sleep quality and duration actually controls blood sugar levels. Similarly, sleep loss results in metabolic changes that have been shown through epidemiologic studies to be linked to obesity, most probably by alerting the function of the hypothalamus, which regulates appetitive and homoeostasis. Lastly, people with sleep deprivation present with an increased risk cardiovascular issues including hypertension, stroke and coronary heart disease.
If that’s not enough reason to get a few more hours in bed, animal studies have shown that sleep is necessary for survival. For instance, rats, which have an average lifespan of two-to-three years, survive only about five weeks when deprived of REM sleep, while rats deprived of all sleep stages live fewer than three weeks.
So, what is the not-so-subtle lesson in all of this? Think twice before you pull that next all-nighter because you just may be doing yourself more harm than good.
Ramana Gorrepati is in the class of 2013 at Weill Cornell Medical College. What’s Up, Doc?, a column featuring a rotating cast of medical students, appears alternate Fridays this semester. He may be reached at email@example.com.