By Eric Bandin
Losing sleep is like leaking sand from the hourglass of life. Each grain represents a memory lost or a test mismanaged. Sleep has far-reaching effects on many facets of everyday health, but it’s often the first thing to get sacrificed in the face of stress and course loads. Shockingly, two hours of sleep can have the same sedative effect as two to three beers, making for a dicey morning commute.
Bingeing on coffee to study for the big exam, or staying up late to text in bed with your significant other: we’ve all done it. But when you’re thinking, “if I just stay up a little longer,” it’s probably a bad idea. Instead, it’s time to prioritize your sleep and reserve some screen-less snuggle time to meet your needs.
Myth #1: “All-nighter = aced test”
Sleeping may seem lazy come exam crunch-time, but the best students are studying without lifting an eyelid. The mind is actively consolidating memory while asleep, drilling information flashcard-style to create stronger learned associations, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Bedtime is when the brain has an opportunity to download all the events of the previous day and move memories to more permanent locations in the brain. Cram sessions don’t work because short-term memory, the ability to recall recently learned information, gets significantly weaker while sleep deprived. Students will find that they make more mistakes on timed tests, while untimed tests will take longer, says Mary Wagner, associate professor of pediatric sleep medicine at the University of Florida.
Myth #2: “Sleep deprivation only affects me the next day.”
The deep stages of rest are equivalent to fresh oil on the gears of the body. Hormones, the influential chemical fuel for the body, are balanced to a healthy homeostasis overnight. For example, poor sleep can lead to a higher risk of obesity because the ghrelin, the hunger hormone, becomes abundant while leptin, the satiety hormone, becomes deficient.
Proteins are like the building blocks for the body. When we’re asleep, these proteins are acting to regulate our physiological functions. For example, the Period 1 protein enables sodium transport in the kidneys, a process under study for its role in blood pressure. The sodium allows the body to retain water, so without giving the kidneys the time to balance it, you are susceptible to high blood pressure, headaches and cramps, according to Dr. Michelle Gumz, associate professor of medicine at UF.
Some may believe that the biggest consequence of ignoring sleep is compulsive yawning, but that shouldn’t be your only worry. Baggy eyelids also come with a slowed reaction time and a weakened immune system. Infectious diseases like the flu have an easier time crippling a sleep-deprived body, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Not getting six to eight hours of sleep per night can increase the risk of kidney disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Myth #3: “Caffeine and sleep pills can make up for the deficit.”
Caffeine and other stimulants can linger in a body long after they’ve been taken. They also don’t amend the issues that arise from loss of sleep. At best, they are just Band-Aid solutions.
Short naps are a functional alternative. In the afternoon, one 20-30 minute nap can increase alertness and has psychological benefits as a “mini-vacation” in the day, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“Limiting naps is important, it’s much harder to feel refreshed if you nap for 90 minutes because you get taken out of deep sleep,” Wagner says.
Drugs that help you sleep more can also be harmful when taken long-term. The number-one sleep aid Ambien has been known to create “ambien zombies” that walk, talk and in particularly dangerous situations, drive while asleep. Even melatonin, a hormone produced naturally for sleep known as the “hormone of darkness,” can be an unpredictable supplement to take, as the FDA does not regulate it.
In the end, any professional will tell you that the most effective method is to keep up healthy and consistent sleep routine. The bedroom should be a sacred zone for sleep. Maintaining a dark and quiet space free of distractions (looking at you, late-night YouTube wanderers) is key to sleeping effectively.
Myth #4: “Dreams are useless.”
It takes approximately an hour and half to reach REM sleep, the critical rapid eye movement stage of rest where dreams occur.
Being unable to stay in REM sleep is associated with interpersonal distress and increased stress levels in insomnia patients the day after a sleepless night. In a study conducted with insomniac men and women, and men and women who reported minimal problems with sleep, participants with and without insomnia were ranked on levels of arousal (life distractions) before sleep. Results showed that higher pre-sleep arousal was linked to the insomniac patients with more interpersonal issues.
This is why it’s key to calm your mind and cut out distractions before getting into bed — or you may have problems falling and staying asleep.
“[Patients] often convince themselves that TV and distractions in bed are normal, but the effect on their daily lives is anything but,” says Marylyn Lockhard, sleep technologist at SIMED Health.
For those who can’t recall their dreams, or want to sleep more deeply, meditation can help people achieve lucid dreams.