The problems with collegiate sleep schedules

Category:  News
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017 at 6:37 PM
The problems with collegiate sleep schedules by Hannah McDonald
Graphic: Shelby Kirk

Urban legend has it that fruit flies live such short lives because they do not have the ability to sleep. Without this, the minuscule insects’ bodies do not rest, ergo deteriorating until death. 

But while it’s true the common fruit fly lives a fraction of the time that human beings do — just around 10 days — the belief they do not sleep is purely myth. In a number of studies, it’s been found that fruit flies have similar sleep patterns to humans. And like many humans, they can experience sleep deprivation, which can greatly affect their way of life. 

Sleep deprivation is defined by the American Sleep Association as “not obtaining adequate total sleep.” This sounds relatively benign, but sleep deprivation can lead to extreme maladies such as depression, weight loss or gain, diabetes, or loss of motor skills. 

How long can humans stay awake? “The easy experimental answer to this question is 264 hours (about 11 days),” answered J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego in a piece for Scientific American. 

Studies show that staying up this long is not a good idea though, as going even one night with less than necessary sleep can begin to affect memory, cognitive function and productivity. A 2010 study in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health reports that “the consequences of sleep deprivation at 24 hours is comparable to the cognitive impairment of someone with a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 percent.”

“I believe productivity would start to decline immediately after a student begins sleeping less and [would] get worse with the degree of sleep deprivation,” Dr. Frank Arnal, a practicing pulmonologist working in Jamestown, New York, said. In an interview via email, he shared how lack of sleep and napping can have an effect on one’s productivity and health. 

To start, the “average amount of sleep needed is 7 to 8 hours for an adult...although one study determined that 8.16 hours per night was needed to avoid detrimental effects on walking functions,” Arnal said. “This can be determined using a psychomotor vigilance test. Sleepiness in general is measuring by sleep latency on the Multiple Sleep Latency Test,” he continued. 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine explains this study tests for excessive daytime sleepiness. This happens by measuring how quickly an individual falls asleep in a quiet environment during daylight hours. The MSLT test, as it is also known, is a full day test that consists of five scheduled naps and multiple hour breaks in between. 

Arnal explained human sleep happens in cycles. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes. These cycles are composed of a period of non–rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which is followed by stage R rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. On average, individuals experience 3 to 5 NREM/REM cycles per night. 

NREM sleep happens during the first 10 minutes after one closes their eyes to sleep. From NREM sleep, it is easy to be woken up and return to alertness. There are multiple NREM phases in each sleep cycle. As the phases progress, the individual falls deeper and deeper into sleep. 

REM sleep is the final phase of a 90-minute sleep cycle. It usually lasts about 10 minutes. It is here that the deepest sleep and most vivid dreams occur. During REM sleep — as the name deduces — the slumbering individual’s eyes move rapidly behind their lids as if they were awake. 

“Young adults tend to have circadian delay to sleep onset, meaning that they prefer to go to sleep later,” Arnal said. 

This makes sense when one looks at college students, but circadian delay to sleep onset does not justify staying awake all hours of the night. It is one thing to prefer going to bed at 11 p.m. instead of 7:30, but staying up until 2 a.m. is not natural. With most class schedules, one is forced to wake up relatively early, even if they have only been asleep for a few hours. 

Cue a suffering circadian rhythm and sleep deprivation. 

“Sleep deprivation causes sleepiness, poor performance, reduced motivation, poor mood, poor short-term memory [and] attention lapses,” Arnal said. 

How is one supposed to do their work or study when they are falling asleep in the library? There are several options: coffee, napping, having a protein packed snack, or powering through the afternoon slump. 

“Sleep deprivation causes [an] increase in adenosine in the brain which causes sleepiness,” Arnal said. “That’s why caffeine promotes wakefulness as caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist.” 

Trudging through the afternoon exhaustion does not sound appealing, but a nap may, especially after learning that common misconceptions about naps, such as they ruin an individual’s sleep rhythm or do not make up for lost sleep, are false. 

“Napping in the afternoon can supplement hours missed at night,” Arnal explained. The only major problem with this cure for the 4 o’clock funk is that it may be harder to fall asleep at an early(ish) hour at night after a daytime nap. If one does not find this to be a problem though, set that alarm and take a few Zs during your lunch break.

In addition to catching up on lost hours of sleep, an hour spent napping can counter the effects of sleep deprivation and lead to higher levels of productivity.

NASA conducted a sleep study with pilots to find the benefits of this. “Pilots who were allowed to take a short nap (40 to 45 minutes) improved their performance by 34 percent and their alertness by 54 percent,” Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., said. He once headed NASA’s “Fatigue Countermeasures Program.”

“The best approach would be to avoid sleep deprivation to begin with,” Arnal advised, but if that really is impossible, don’t be afraid to find a comfy spot and take a snooze. It could lead to better work performance, mood and overall health. 

Hannah McDonald can be reached at

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