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Six Hours Until Sunrise and a Binder Full of Notes


Sleep deprivation is something everyone has experienced. We spend a third of our lives snoozing, or we should. Occasionally, we procrastinate or misjudge how long something is going to take, turning what should be a chance for the various functions of your body to reset and undergo maintenance into a productivity marathon.

Does this look familiar? Nearly 60% of college students report getting insufficient sleep. Image credit: Jessica Cross on Flickr.

This is especially true for college students. As young adults are taking their tentative steps into the grown-up world, newfound freedom and scholastic responsibilities must be finely balanced. It simply isn’t possible to fit in all the things that need to be done with all the fun activities we want to do and still have room for 8 hours of sleep. Consequently people often forego the latter. The short-term consequences of this are well known: dark circles under your eyes, short attention span, and the need to sleep-in the next day. However, depriving your body of the time it uses to make sure everything is working properly can have deeper repercussions.

Who Needs Sleep Anyway?

How does sleeping provide any more of a benefit to the body than, say, meditating? On the outside, they could look the same: rhythmic breathing, lowered heart rate, eyes closed. But the meaningful advantages sleep provides come from the biochemical processes that your body turns on while sleeping. In a still not entirely understood mechanism, your brain has a waste drain system that provides more benefit than just sorting and retaining thoughts, by clearing any potentially harmful circulating by-products that occur during normal function.

This process was first hinted at in a set of experiments from the early 1900’s, in which the cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid your brain secretes and floats around in, was removed from dogs that had undergone sleep deprivation and injected into normal, well-rested dogs. Surprisingly, those injected were reported to immediately fall asleep for several hours, whereas transferring from normal dogs did not elicit a change.

More recently, scientists believe this system has a role in more than just sleepiness. In Alzheimer’s Disease, brain function degrades and a characteristic plaque composed of structures called amyloid-beta peptides occur. In a healthy adult, there is a baseline of amyloid-beta circulating, but it is of an unknown function. Multiple studies have shown that the amount of circulating amyloid-beta goes up during a night without sleep. The body can clear it after resting, but clinicians believe repeated all-nighters, as is common through the college years, puts students at risk for earlier onset of the disease.

A histology slide from a patient with severe Alzheimer’s. The many dark splotches are plaque build-up of amyloid-beta peptides. Image credit: Jensflorian via Wikimedia.

Alzheimer’s isn’t the only disorder linked to a poor sleep schedule. Diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, three of the biggest health concerns in the United States, all have ties to insufficient rest. While firm conclusions are hard to draw due to the necessity of sleep, a clear benefit in those that are well rested can be drawn. From an evolutionary perspective, leaving yourself defenseless for several hours by sleeping would not be helpful, unless it resulted in greater benefit, such as disease and infection prevention. Sleep deprivation isn’t just a matter of punishing your body for one night – there can be repercussions down the road, ESPECIALLY if you make a habit of it.

Seriously, Go to Sleep!

While you may ace that 8 A.M. exam, you should consider the cost of risk when you want to play video games now and study later. It could be worth keeping procrastination in check if those sleepless nights catch up to you and rob you of those epic memories you made.

About the author:

Jeremy Duke is a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology PhD student at UGA, focusing on glycoconjugate vaccine development. He has a wonderfully eclectic music taste and likes to make costumes and read when there isn’t a pipette in hand. He can be contacted at jad71457@uga.edu. More from Jeremy Duke.

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