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Lack of Sleep Leads to Drastic Health Risks

By Kelson Howerton
On October 25, 2018

Every year, one day sees a 24 percent increase in heart attacks across the country. This rapid increase in reported heart attack visits to hospitals does not stem from eating too much unhealthy food around the holidays or the increased stress around tax season, but instead this deadly uptick on this very specific day stems from something we do (or do not do) every day – sleep.

Every spring, the country participates in the global sleep experiment of Daylight Saving Time, in which Americans give up an hour of their sleep to make the following days a little brighter. While Daylight Saving Time originated to save money on oil, and later, electricity, today the phenomena is used by sleep scientists to study the effects of sleep and the lack thereof.

According to Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, just losing this one hour of sleep puts your body at terrible risk, an effect that can shake your system for weeks after that one Monday.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, hospitals report a 21 percent decrease in heart attack visits on the Monday in the fall in which clocks are rolled back, giving an extra hour of sleep.

Keeping your body from getting the sleep it needs goes way further than the obvious downsides to your energy, motivation and overall mental state, Walker says. Depriving your body of that “8-hour sleep necessity,” even if just by an hour or two, hampers your body’s ability to create the killer cells that fight cancer, linking lack of sleep to bowel, prostate and breast cancer, Walker told The Guardian. The World Health Organization even classifies nighttime shifts at work as a “probable carcinogen.”

Even further, frequently getting under 7 hours of sleep will increase your rate of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and adults age 45 and over who do not get more than 6 hours of sleep a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack in their lifetime, as evidenced by the results of daylight savings time.

If sleep is this important to our health, and not getting enough sleep can be dangerous enough to be classified as a carcinogen, then why are we still treating sleep like a recommended but optional pastime? How has a culture that devalues sleep become so prevalent?

Simply put, our culture looks at sleep completely wrong. Rather than emphasizing the necessity of sleep, we live in a fast-paced, always-working society that rewards those who do not let a moment of their day go to waste. Electricity makes the darkness of sundown irrelevant, pushing our bedtimes way into the hours of the night, making the word “midnight” meaningless. Naps are a thing of the past, as citizens flock to coffee shops to load up on caffeine so they have the energy to keep going, never slowing down.

This culture that minimizes the importance of sleep is worsened when some of the world’s most successful people, from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to PepsioCo chair and CEO Indra Nooyi, tout their brief sleeping schedules, with many in the business world encouraging a very early rise to take charge of the day and get a leg-up on the competition.

Nowhere is this culture seen more than college campuses, where students pull all-nighters on the regular, and caffeine intake is at its peak. While you may not be guilty of pulling an all-nighter, working into late hours and waking up early for classes is standard for most students, with students getting an average of 6-6.9 hours of sleep every night according to the University of Georgia’s University Health Center.

Matthew Walker even reports his students seeing sleep as a weakness. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness,” the sleep expert told The Guardian. “We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor.”

With its busy schedules and stringent demands, no place is there a greater need for sleep than college, yet so many students fail plan for or find the time to sleep. Students’ lives actively prevent and discourage sleep. This is a major problem for students, as the major stresses of university life already has an impact on students’ health. Throw a consistent six hours of sleep every night on top of that stress, and students have a recipe for disaster.

According to a study by the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas, every night students received less than 8 hours of sleep resulted in a 0.02-point drop in their cumulative GPA. On the other end of the spectrum, the study showed well rested students had a 0.14 GPA advantage over students not getting enough sleep. 

To put this in context, the study showed that lack of sleep had the same impact on GPA as binge drinking and drug use, with this effect being even greater for first year students.

The study also reported that students who did not get enough sleep were also more likely to drop classes, and the researchers further backed up the notion that little sleep greatly effects the effectiveness of students in their work.

According to Walker, lack of sleep not only hampers productivity, but also the speed and motivation. While it might seem counterproductive to spend less hours in the day working and more hours sleeping, getting a good night’s rest will make those hours of work more productive and more impactful, producing better work faster.

While the busyness of a college life can cause sleep to fall to the wayside, it is important that students change their views of sleep, not only for their health, but for their grades. With lack of sleep being classified as anything under seven hours of sleep, six hours a night every week is not going to cut it. Putting emphasis on sleep and killing the stigma of a full night’s rest will not only make us healthier and happy people, but better students.


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