The science of sleep deprivation

Amidst studying for exams, handing in assignments, going to work and whatever time is left for socializing, sleep comes last in the books for many students at the University of Manitoba. This applies to adults and even to children. Missing a full night’s sleep to study for an exam the following day or to pull an all nighter on the town may be OK once and a while, however if you are the typical student who feels run down at the end of the week and you don’t sleep very well, there may be a number of forces that cause you to suffer from sleep deprivation.’

A short while ago, Mandy Mou, an undergraduate student, performed an on-campus study researching the effects of sleep deprivation. For her thesis, called “Sleep Disturbance: Importance and Implications,” Mou asked a sample of students to detail their sleep habits and discovered that 74 per cent of first year students suffered from some form of a sleep related issue or disturbance.

There are various causes for why a student may be suffering from a sleeping disorder of some form or another. A common cause is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “winter depression.” SAD is influenced by the progressively changing weather patterns as fall becomes winter and daylight hours are progressively reduced. The human body has what are called circadian rhythms (the physical, mental and behavioral changes during a 24-hour cycle) and when days begin to get shorter and there is a reduction in daylight, circadian rhythms become desynchronized and this can trigger depression. According to the National Sleep Foundation, depression and sleep disorders often go hand-in-hand in the sense that depression can lead to insomnia or the inability for your body to enter a proper sleep cycle.

The rule also applies to all-night study sessions. Overnight exposure to light negatively affects a very sensitive part of you brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is in charge of coordinating circadian rhythms.

Dr. Diana McMillan, associate professor in the faculty of Nursing, is a specialist in sleeping disorders and sleep health practices. McMillan explained that when a person stays up too late and enters an irregular sleep cycle, their body doesn’t produce enough melatonin, the natural hormone that assists falling asleep.

“We are over stimulating ourselves with bright light at a time when we should be getting low light,” said McMillan.

She added that a large number of hormones are only secreted during sleep and are essential to overall health.“One of the hormones that is secreted is growth hormone. [ . . . ] This hormone is integral for tissue repair and is only secreted during sleep.”

Blood sugar is another example of a bodily function that is only controlled during a natural sleep cycle. For example, consider a person suffering from insomnia, a condition where the sleep cycle becomes interrupted, leaving the person feeling unrested from little or no sleep. This person’s body, may at times, be physiologically like a diabetic’s and therefore more prone to infection.

You may ask, “What is the specific number of hours of sleep required to feel rested and healthy?” Dr. McMillan suggested somewhere between 7-9 hours a night.

A study performed by Krystan A. O’Rouke showed that the majority of third-year students at The U of M have difficulty falling asleep, taking on average an hour to do so and only getting 5-7 hours of sleep a night.

“Students and younger people have more resiliency [to a lack of sleep], but still there is a limit to it. [ . . . ] You are more likely to get sick or get injured,” O’Rourke said.

According to McMillan, when the human body lacks sleep, there are also increased risks of weight gain due to an increase in appetite. This is because a lack of sleep stimulates the increased production of ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone.

“Ghrelin levels are way higher [with a lack of sleep]. In doing so, you stay up more and have more opportunity to eat garbage and you gain weight,” said McMillan.

Homeostatic sleep drive is symptom of sleep deprivation, which causes people to progressively feel more tired as the day wears on. The longer you have been awake, the more the body begins to crave sleep. Eventually the drive is so strong that the body will abruptly crash and fall asleep. This is what often causes motor vehicle accidents when drivers suddenly fall asleep at the wheel.

Another cause of sleep deprivation is derived from smoking and alcohol consumption. Alcohol, as a diuretic will cause more frequent trips to the bathroom. This still applies while you are sleeping and can quickly interrupt the flow of a sleep cycle.

Nicotine in cigarettes happens to be a very strong stimulate. McMillan explained that smokers would often be awakened by nicotine cravings, forcing them to get up in the middle of the night and have another cigarette. The nicotine in the cigarette will also stimulate the body, and possibly keep you up for the rest of the night.

Ultimately, sleep deprivation is something that will affect everyone. University students and faculty members are often hit the hardest due to our tight schedules and demanding workload. While it’s easy to say that the best way to feel more rested is to find an appropriate balance of work and sleep, applying it may be hard. However, if you typically feel tired and notice yourself stumbling around campus or you’ve noticed your school marks slipping, it’s clearly time for a change.

Dr. McMillian provided The Manitoban with some tips to feeling more rested. McMillian is adamant that these changes will improve your well being.

Simple strategies to help you sleep:
— Exercise daily in the morning or afternoon
— Power snoozes (20-30 minutes) can be a great energy boost. Keep them short and early in the afternoon.
— Keep to a regular schedule, especially wake-up time.
— Take a warm bath or shower 1-2 hours before bed.
— Have a light snack at bedtime, like half a banana.
— Avoid stimulants, like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
— Gear down before bed.
— Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and comfortable.
— If you cannot sleep after 20 minutes, get up and do an easy puzzle, or read a magazine until you feel sleepy.
— Racing thoughts? Keep a “worry/questions to ask list”; try imagery, progressive relaxation and thought-stopping.