Science Column: Sleep Deprivation Kills

Ah, sleep deprivation. Just like frozen meals, caffeine binges and incessant procrastination, it’s inseparable from the college experience despite our full awareness that it’s not good for us. We know we’re not doing ourselves any favors when we study until sun-up or else party the night away (it’s always one extreme or the other), but how much damage are we really doing? Is there more to it than dark circles under the eyes and excessive yawning? Actually, it turns out we’re doing way more harm than we realize when we make skipping out on shuteye a habit.

Most of us probably would not be surprised to learn that we are more emotional and less able to focus when we are sleep deprived. However, the long term effects may come as a bit of a shock. A recent study shows that seven nights in a row of sleep deprivation (defined as six hours of sleep or less) can actually cause changes in our genes that make us more susceptible to conditions such as heart disease and obesity. It increases our risk of developing a variety of other nasty health problems, including resistance to insulin, potential increase in risk of developing cancer, and even permanent cognitive issues. Scientists believe that a consistent lack of adequate sleep causes brain deterioration that ultimately results in memory loss in our golden years. One of the many miraculous functions of sleep is its ability to aid in the storage of our memories; when we don’t use sleep to regularly make deposits into our memory banks, we are bound to someday come up short when we attempt a withdrawal. Furthermore, studies with rats indicate that sleep deprivation over a period of 72 days can result in the onset of osteoporosis, and studies with human subjects have found that those who regularly get less than six hours of sleep a night are 48 percent more likely to develop heart disease. Perhaps the most rattling new tidbit of sleep research is the 2010 study which revealed that men who slept less than six hours a night are four times more likely to die of anything over a 14- year period. Lack of sleep makes you vulnerable to disease and to potentially fatal inattentiveness.

The negative effects of extensive sleep deprivation are enough to make any college student or working American squirm. It’s more than a little astounding to think that too many nights without quality pillow time can cause so many detrimental health problems. What’s perhaps even more astounding (and seemingly contradictory) is that, in moderation, there could actually be something positive about depriving your body of sleep. A number of scientific studies reveal that forgoing sleep for one night enables you to have a higher quality of sleep the next and stimulates the production of feel-good hormones like serotonin and noradrenaline. According to an article about the effects of sleep deprivation used to treat patients with depression published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, sleep deprivation’s antidepressant abilities are “efficacious and rapid.”

The latest findings about sleep deprivation have done much to change our perception of this essential biological process, reemphasizing the importance of sleep to our health and, most of all, unveiling hidden complexities in a part of life that we so often take for granted. When done right, it seems that a little dose of sleep deprivation can enhance our health, while making it a routine can cause some serious damage. With that being said, I think it’s time for a nap.

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