Community / Letters to the Editor

Repaying sleep debt: Improving a community one night at a time

Abigail (Abby) Bertelson ’13 is a first-year student at Stanford University and writes to The Hallmanac to share what she has learned in her “Sleep and Dreams” course — information important for Dana Hall students facing sleep debt.

Walking into school in the morning is often accompanied by overheard groans of “I’m soo tired” or “I was up until 2:30 last night!” These complaints are evidence of the great amount of sleep deprivation in high school students on a daily basis. Everyone has been a student at some point in their life, and knows the feeling of being overwhelmed with homework that must be completed by morning. These feelings and desires to succeed often lead to late nights of studying and the unfortunate consequence of chronic sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation is one of the most significant disadvantages that students must overcome, especially because so few people are truly educated about the effects of sleep. Evidence of this is apparent when people like to brag about how little they slept the night before – it is sometimes almost a competition to see who stayed up the latest! This sort of comparison is quite unhealthy and, surprisingly to many, fosters a much lower quality of life than if people were proud of how rested they are, rather than how exhausted they are.

Many people understand that in order to be “healthy,” they must eat nutritiously and exercise properly. Nutrition and exercise are well advocated for, and many people are very clear on the direct effects that these factors have on health and wellbeing. The one factor that most people do not know belongs in this equation for health is adequate sleep. These three factors – sleep, diet, and exercise – are referred to as the triumvirate of health. Maximizing all three of these factors will lead to greater personal wellbeing.

There is a long list of problems that sleep deprivation can cause, and most (if not all of them) are quite applicable to students. These problems include fatigue, drowsiness, short attention span, decreased memory, worse moods, lowered focus, and decreased happiness. Personal obstacles like these can not only intervene in personal and social life, but academic and athletic life as well. Someone who is extremely sleep deprived will be much less successful in school and on the playing field.

Not only can sleep deprivation cause personal problems, it can also be dangerous to others. The motto of the Sleep and Dreams class at Stanford is “Drowsiness is red alert!” This mantra represents the idea that as soon as you are drowsy, you must take a break and obtain some sleep in order to keep functioning safely. One of the most important and dangerous situations of being drowsy is driving a car. Think of driving to school every morning, sometimes having to put conscious effort into keeping your eyes open and focusing on the road. This type of drowsiness is an extreme danger to yourself and others on the road. Unfortunately, many car accidents have occurred due to drowsy driving.

A huge problem that people face regarding their sleep habits is that when they do sleep, they do not wake up feeling rested or refreshed. This means that they did not get enough sleep, or they have accumulated a large sleep debt in the past. Waking up feeling tired or groggy for an extended period of time is a warning that you have not had enough sleep, and you need to improve your sleep habits in order to feel bright and refreshed in the morning to be able to go about your day positively and productively. Sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity, and both should be maximized in order to achieve the benefits that good sleep has to offer.

Anothsleep debter important factor in gaining a good night’s sleep is that not everyone knows how much sleep his or her body needs. This can vary between people, and unfortunately it can be somewhat impractical to try and determine the exact number of hours per night each individual requires. However, studies have been done to test this. One study took people and let them sleep in a quiet, dark room each night for as many hours as they could with no outside stimuli. The study found that participants slept for a long time the first few nights – up to 14 hours of sleep – but then as their sleep debt decreased, their nightly sleep gradually decreased, and they would wake up naturally, feeling rested and energized after about 8 hours of sleep. When there became a consistent pattern of each individual repeating the same number of hours per sleep in the study, it was determined that this number would be that individual’s optimal amount of sleep. While this number can vary from person to person, it is a good indicator that there is an optimal amount of sleep for each person.

Unfortunately, studies like this can be hard to practically re-create at home, due to the busy lives of students and parents. However, it shows the importance of taking every opportunity to catch up on sleep and monitor how many hours each person sleeps at night; finding the right amount of sleep is important to reducing sleep debt in the future and feeling rested after sleep.

Arguably the most important thing to understand about sleep deprivation is that sleep debt can accumulate, and there is no way to make up this debt other than simply sleeping extra to make up for the hours lost. Sleep debt is very simple: it accumulates as you sleep fewer hours than your body needs to function properly. Although everyone has a different necessity for sleep, sleep debt accumulates the same way for everyone. Every lost hour of needed sleep turns into an hour of sleep debt, which can only be repaid by sleeping for another hour at a later point. Once a sleep debt has been eliminated, there is no need to sleep extra hours during the night.

A big problem with accumulating sleep debt in high school and as a student is that the cycle perpetuates itself. The side effects of sleep debt and deprivation include lowered focus and attention span, which leads to less productivity and efficiency in schoolwork. Completing schoolwork less efficiently means that students will likely stay up later to try to finish their workload, which adds to the sleep debt even more. But, as the sleep debt increases, the effects of sleep deprivation worsen, and the cycle continues on viciously.

The most important and effective way of addressing a large sleep debt is simply to repay the debt by obtaining the proper amount of sleep in addition to the lost hours. This is the simplest way to get back to a “normal” sleep schedule and level of productivity, although it is often easier said than done. Start small – try increasing sleep by a few minutes each night and eventually reaching your desired number of sleep hours so that you can repay the sleep debt.

Sleep is one of the most important and under-studied components of daily life, and as high school students, it is one of the most important problems to fix: it will improve not only sleep, but also many other aspects of day-to-day life. Improving the sleep of a community will make it safer, happier, and more productive.