November 11, 2002

Spotlight on: Sleep Deprivation

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Cornell students know the scenario: two prelims and a paper in two days keep them at Uris Library until the closing bell all week long. They get home, craving the comfort of flannel sheets and down pillows, but rather than dozing off into never never land, end up tossing and turning and watching the clock change from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. The next thing they know the alarm yanks them from a restless sleep and it’s time to start all over again.

“63 percent of adults, including young adults, have insomnia at least a few nights a week, and at a high pressure school, a greater incidence of insomnia is likely to occur,” said Prof. James Maas Ph.D. ’66, psychology, who calls himself the “sleep evangelist” and has appeared on many national talk shows, including The Today Show, Oprah and Regis and Kelly, urging people to get their z’s.

According to Maas, the bottom line is that, “Insomnia makes you stupid and shortens your life and makes you ill.”

Having trouble sleeping can stem from any number of sources and has many causes, including stress, dietary factors, emotional factors, alcohol and drugs, caffeine and lack of exercise, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett Health Center.

“Sleep is a hot topic now, because it’s a national crisis,” Maas said.

According to Maas, students need nine and one quarter hours of sleep every night to be fully alert, but on average sleep just over six hours. A myriad of studies and reports have shed light on the serious effects of losing sleep, including increased risk for type II diabetes, lowered immunity to colds and the flu, moodiness, reduced efficiency and even obesity.

Dittman described college students’ lack of sleep as a vicious cycle.

“When Cornell students have three prelims in one week plus a social life, sleep or exercise seems like the only thing to cut,” she said. “What are you going to do? Give up your social life for an early class?”

Technically, insomnia refers to not being able to fall asleep, not being able to maintain sleep, or waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep.

There are three forms of insomnia. Transient insomnia occurs in response to jet lag or anxiety over a major event and usually does not last more than a few nights. Short-term insomnia can last for up to three weeks and can be the result of severe stress, bereavement, or illness. Chronic insomnia lasts more than three weeks and is often closely tied to depression and emotional problems.

Short-term and chronic insomnia both pose the greatest threats to people’s health. Maas explained that many people have chronic delayed sleep phases because their bodies are “out of sync.”

“[Students are] buzzing at one, two, or three in the morning, they finally crash at five, and then they’re asleep all morning and up all night again,” Maas said.

“No matter how macho you think you are, the body needs sleep to restore body cells and reorganize the brain,” Maas said, referring to people’s tendency to think they can outsmart their brains and bodies.

“People just grab sleep when they have a chance to grab sleep, [thinking] ‘if I don’t sleep here, I’ll make it up here,'” Dittman said. “Not only does that not work, it disrupts sleep patterns.”

Maas explained that establishing a set bedtime and wake time seven days a week is essential to getting good sleep and training your body to adapt to a sleep pattern.

Of the many possible solutions to getting a good night’s rest, Maas did not include alcohol and over-the-counter drugs.

“Alcohol causes insomnia — it destroys REM sleep,” he said. “It puts you to sleep, but you’ll be up every 90 minutes.”

Drugs that induce sleep, such as Tylenol PM and NyQuil should be used as directed and not for more than several days at a time. They are intended to alleviate symptoms of illnesses to make sleep easier, not to help people sleep who do not have the symptoms, he said.

According to Maas, instead of taking drugs or drinking alcohol to fall asleep, people should maintain what he calls “sleep hygiene.” This includes sleeping in a quiet, dark, cool bedroom, without pets or other disturbances in the room — including a television — and eliminating clutter and signs of work from the environment.

The stresses and underlying issues that arise in a competitive Ivy League environment play a major role in sleep problems.

“So often it’s all about what’s going on under the surface,” Dittman said. “Cornell students are constantly thinking and worrying, ‘Am I going to get a summer job or pass this class or get into law school?'”

One way to deal with stress is what Maas described as establishing a “worry time.”

“Right before bed, dump your stress, put it on index cards or use a pocket tape recorder and get it all out and you’re much less likely to wake up during the night thinking about it,” Maas said.

There are many ways to deal with insomnia, including taking prescription medication, which is appropriate under some circumstances. Counselors and doctors at Gannett can help determine the best course of treatment for students having sleep problems. Gannett nurses are also on-call all night long for students who need someone to talk to when they have trouble falling asleep.

Maas conducted an experiment in which functional MRI’s examined how the brains of students, who had different amounts of sleep, performed problem-solving tasks.

“Students with minimal sleep had nothing going on in their cerebral cortexes,” Maas said.

While Maas said he does not expect students to sleep the necessary 9.25 hours each night, he does urge them to squeeze in just one extra hour.

“It will make all the difference,” he said.

Try as they might, some students eventually have problems sleeping anyway.

“All semester I’ve been having trouble sleeping, especially living in the [fraternity] house, where people are awake and doing stuff at all hours,” Josh Teitelbaum ’05 said.

Archived article by Stacey Delikat