“I’m going to fall asleep. I’m going to fall asleep.”
After walking once around the car, after smacking myself, after singing at the top of my lungs, after silence, I wake up speeding past bands of metal and green.
I crashed into a shrub-covered fence right before reaching the E. Brokaw Rd. exit on I 880. My car was totaled. It was 2:36 a.m.
When the police came, I felt relief and panic.
“Have you been drinking tonight?” the officer asked.
I looked down at my red flower-patterned pajama bottoms and shook my head. No, I hadn’t been drinking, but I might as well have.
After only sleeping two and a half hours during a span of three and a half days, I somehow managed to make myself feel invincible.
“Normal people would have gone insane by now,” I had boasted to others.
Research papers and finals were my foremost concerns. I spent the majority of the school term having a social life, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from getting A’s in my courses. I functioned under the “work hard — party harder” ethic, like so many of my peers.
With this ethic, I found myself bawling by the side of the road on the other side of the fence. Mascara-stained tears poured down my cheek, as the officer gave me back my driver’s license.
“Happy birthday,” he said.
I Am Not Alone
“Your experience is not unique,” said Elizabeth Hyde, nurse practitioner and patient care coordinator at the UC Santa Cruz Health Center.
She gives me an empathetic smile and continues to explain how common the issue of sleep deprivation is on campus, as well as across the entire country. Despite health repercussions ranging from altered mood and cognitive impairment to an increased likelihood of high blood pressure and diabetes, irregular sleep is becoming increasingly common in the United States, according to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
The poll found that people averaged 6.9 hours of sleep per night, dropping an average of two hours since the 1800s. Among those with an increased participation in this trend are young adults. In another study, NSF reported that 63 percent of college students do not sleep enough.
“The [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has] been very alarmed by sleep deprivation,” Hyde said. “I just had somebody in the office the other day that fell asleep on their way back from Tahoe. Four kids in the car — dove into a snow bank.”
NHTSA estimates that tiredness or sleep deprivation causes 100,000 accidents, 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths in the United States every year. As steep car insurance prices reflect, young people under 25 are more likely to be involved in sleep-related accidents.
Drivers awake for 17 to 19 hours drive worse than drivers with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent, according to research conducted in New Zealand and Australia and published in the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Cognitive impairments, often the cause of collisions, are only some of the more immediate effects of sleep deprivation. Insufficient sleep has direct connections to a person’s health in the long-term.
“The data is just really clear that somewhere around eight hours of sleep is really necessary for good health,” Hyde said, “and some people can get by on a little less, but you can’t maintain the same health benefits.”
Looking out from her busy Health Center office filled with files and paperwork, Hyde said students often frequent the center with sleep issues.
“I would say pretty much everybody here works regularly with people who are having trouble [with sleep deprivation],” Hyde said.
Though the college scene often motivates students’ decision to reduce their sleeping, the ability to sleep is often out of their control.
“Some people are choosing not to sleep, and some people can’t sleep,” Hyde said.
I Choose Not To Sleep
Prior to my accident, I often boasted of my ability to limit my sleep “effectively” and without repercussions — or so I thought.
“People think they’re wasting time when they sleep,” Hyde said. “I think that’s a little bit of it, especially as the semester closes and you think of all the things you’d like to get done.”
Last minute frenzies to soak in the maximum amount of information, commonly known as “all-nighters,” inadvertently produce the opposite effect.
A study led by Dr. Matthew Walker of the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that memory improved by 20 to 30 percent with proper rest.
“You need to get a good night of sleep after you’ve learned something,” Walker said in HealthBeat, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services production. “If you don’t get that good night’s sleep, if you pull the all-nighter … both of them cause catastrophic deficits in terms of memory.”
However, a lower test score is more desirable than no test score at all. In the same National Sleep Foundation study on college students, 15 percent of those polled admitted to falling asleep in class.
Hyde acknowledges that often people reduce their sleep to get their work done.
“I wish that nobody ever had to pull an all-nighter,” Hyde said. “I just don’t think you get the performance you imagine you’re going to get. People think, ‘I can be productive all night long,’ but you just really can’t.”
Though many can relate to having the occasional sleep-deprived night, others go on with little rest over long periods of time.
Carlisa Moffett is attending her last year at Cal State San Marcos. With a workload of over 60 hours a week, including 15 units of courses, ministry training, a full-time job as a McDonald’s manager and a part-time job as a stocker at the Camp Pendleton base commissary, Moffett is left with very little time to sleep on a regular basis.
“On most nights, I’m getting three or four hours [of sleep],” Moffett said with a bright smile accompanied by tired eyes. “To me, when I say, ‘Oh, I get to sleep five hours tonight,’ that’s good sleep.”
With tuition increases and credit card debt, Moffett chose to get her second job with flexible hours at the commissary to be more financially secure.
To save money on a $296 semester parking permit and gas, Moffett has stopped driving her car, for which she continues to make payments. Instead she rides the Sprinter, a North San Diego County commuter train.
“It doesn’t really help me with sleep because you have to get up earlier to catch the Sprinter, as opposed to driving,” Moffett said. “I’ll doze off in the Sprinter every now and then. I’ve been catching the Sprinter to school to save the money, because it’s only $116 for the whole semester.”
Moffett continues to sacrifice sleep, though she has felt the adverse effects. Since she is finishing her last year, Moffett’s courses have become more lecture-oriented. These lectures keep her confined to her seat for an uncomfortable amount of time.
“They’re things that I’m interested in, but I cannot sit through them,” Moffett said. “I am honestly nodding, and I can’t sit straight, and I’m fidgety. Because I know I’m so tired, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. As soon as I sit down and my body feels like it’s resting, I start to fall asleep.”
Walking down a fluorescent hall of the Psychiatric Services wing, MaryJan Murphy, Ph.D., training director and acting co-director of counseling and psychological services at UCSC, says other students have similar issues.
“It’s more difficult to concentrate and to study,” Murphy said. “Feeling overwhelmed and tired and not having enough energy to sort of do the tasks that you would normally do — being burnt out a little bit — those [effects] are really common.”
Moffett’s head-nodding has extended from the classroom and into her social life.
“On Valentine’s Day, I went out on a date to the movies,” Moffett says with a playful laugh. “All I could tell the guy is ‘If I fall asleep, please don’t think that you’re boring, but if I sit in here, I’m going to fall asleep. It’s dark, and I’m going to get comfortable.’ I totally just fell asleep on him.”
She also fears becoming part of the 100,000-a-year car accident statistic.
“Now I’m scared to drive,” Moffett said. “I’m always saying, ‘Somebody drive with me. I don’t care if I have to go out of my way to come get you.’ I don’t want to drive long-distance by myself because I feel my eyes getting heavy. It’s when my body’s at rest and I want to be awake that I wish I would have been able to get more sleep.”
Despite choosing to sacrifice her sleep, Moffett does not suggest this approach for everyone. She said that she forgoes rest in hopes of making a difference in a child’s life with her career.
“If you’re going to sacrifice sleep, make sure that whatever it is that you’re doing is worth it,” Moffett said. “It’s not healthy, first of all. Don’t jeopardize your health for a pipe dream or for something you know you’re not going to complete. It’s unnecessary. I wouldn’t tell people, ‘Girl, you don’t need to sleep. Go get a job.’”
I Can’t Sleep
Though I’ve put my “all-nighter” days behind me, I still fail at maintaining a regular sleeping schedule. As a self-proclaimed day and night person, I sneak in an average of six to seven hours of sleep a night. On Thursday nights, when bars don’t have a cover fee, sleeping gets closer to four hours.
With the amount of sleep I’m getting, bars aren’t even necessary.
In 2003, University of Pennsylvania researchers published a study in which subjects slept under six hours a night for two weeks. At the end of the study, the volunteer’s performance was as impaired as those who were awake for 48 hours straight. This is more than double the amount of sleepless hours the New Zealand and Australian researchers found to be the equivalent of intoxication.
Apparently, I am drunk all of the time.
According to a study on 6,000 women by James McClain of the National Cancer Institute, I am at a higher risk of cancer, as are other sleep-deprived women.
And if I manage to live every day like I do Thursday nights, a study led by James E. Gangwisch, Ph.D. of Columbia University says I am more likely to die at a younger age than my non-sleep-deprived peers.
Though health is a serious concern, people having similar difficulties with sleeping don’t exactly choose to be at risk.
With experience in stress-related factors of sleep deprivation, Murphy also understands some of the reasoning behind sleep deprivation.
“People react differently to stress,” Murphy said. “I think [there’s] the anxiety about doing well in school and anxiety about, ‘Do I have enough money?’ It’s so expensive now to go to school. And [there’s] anxiety about maybe, ‘I have to help my family.’ All that can also cause some people to have sleep problems.”
Murphy also pointed to some challenges young adults face when entering college.
“I do think it’s hard as a college student,” Murphy said. “You’re in different kinds of living environment, and those living environments might not be the same that you’re used to, so there are different kinds of noises. You’re living with people who have different cycles than you. How do you adapt to that kind of thing?”
‘Growing up’ brings with it several opportunities to set off a person’s sleeping cycle. Spencer Martin, a student at American River College in Elk Grove, has struggled with sleep since his days in high school.
“There are the eight-hour days, nine-hour days, and there are the three-hour days, so probably that’s just about five [hours of sleep on average],” Martin said.
Martin would often find himself awake until 5 a.m., staring into the glare of Facebook.
“I can only fall asleep when I’m completely exhausted,” Martin said. “It’s been a long road of self-induced insomnia. I’ve purposefully gotten very little sleep, whether it be school work or just shenanigans, that now my body is in tune with my lack of sleep.”
Casey Goldman, fourth-year at UCSC, has dealt with sleeping problems since childhood. Like Martin, his body does not feel the need for sleep until dawn. Though he falls asleep at around 6 or 7 a.m. and naturally wakes up at around 2 p.m., he has given up on trying to match his own sleeping patterns to those deemed “normal” by others.
“The way I cope with sleep deprivation now is that I don’t try to force myself to go to sleep,” Goldman said. “I let it take its course, and I try as best as I can to move my schedule and my life around when my body wants to sleep.”
For those who have difficulty falling asleep, most literature on sleep health shows that it is best not to stay in bed awake for long periods of time, suggesting activities that make people feel tired instead.
For a wide spectrum of reasons, many young adults have similar difficulties with sleep.
There is a disproportionate number of adolescents and young adults (approximately 7 to 16 percent) with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), according to the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine (SCSSM). SCSSM defines this syndrome as “a disorder in which the timing of sleep and the peak period of alertness are delayed several hours relative to societal clock.”
DSPS is caused by a shift in a person’s circadian rhythm, which leads to feeling tired at later times. Though it is a common sleeping pattern among youth, it is still not understood why this shift happens.
“We know that typically, in the teenage years, people stay up later at night and get up later in the morning,” Hyde said. “But our society isn’t set up that way. So you just stay up late and still have to get up early.”
Adhering to society’s sleep schedule can be especially difficult for those with sleep disorders. But sometimes a lack of sleep is a result of a conscious choice.
“It’s hard to tell the difference between people who can’t sleep and the people who are bored and stay up all night,” Martin said. “It might just be the same thing, but I think a lot of people our age stay up pretty late at night … because if you can keep yourself busy with pretty much anything now, there’s no point in going to sleep right when the sun goes down.”
Whether a person chooses to decrease the amount they sleep or not, reduced hours of sleep have the same effect on everyone.
“There are still times when I get three hours of sleep and feel like a zombie for the rest of the day,” Martin said.
With sleepless nights that kept Martin feeling like the living dead, he started to think of leading a different lifestyle.
“Sometimes what happens with college students is that they start worrying, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m not getting enough sleep. Oh, that’s a problem,’ and it starts to get really big,” Murphy said. “If you don’t get the sleep you need, you might be a little bit tired the next day, but you’ll still probably be able to do what you need to do, and hopefully you’ll make it up the next day. It sometimes sets its own worry off for college students.”
Though Goldman gets the full amount of suggested sleep, adjusting his schedule has been difficult.
“The rest of the world operates on a different clock,” Goldman said. “For most everybody, the day starts when I’m just getting ready to go to bed. If I wake up at 2 p.m., there are very few hours I have left to get to the bank, get to school, get through all this stuff and get to the library before it all closes down.”
Because Goldman has seen general performance improvement in using his new approach to sleep, he continues to maintain this schedule. However, Goldman does not encourage his method for those having problems sleeping.
“I’ve been able to just get by, which is good enough for me right now,” Goldman said. “For people that have issues with sleep deprivation, it makes life very difficult for them. I would hope that they would see a doctor if they can and they try whatever they can in order to get sleep.”
For those losing sleep over losing sleep, Hyde said that many of these changes are natural.
“Developmentally, it’s normal to stay up late,” Hyde said. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily college life. I think it’s part of coming of age, figuring out ‘Am I a day person? Am I a night person? Do I need seven hours? Do I need nine hours? Am I terribly susceptible to noise? Can I sleep anywhere?’ [It’s about] just discovering yourself.”
I Will Sleep
Though the “dangers” of sleep deprivation may be overwhelming, there isn’t much of a reason to worry. Before developing into anything serious, most negative effects can be reversed with a solution that is not very surprising — more sleep.
Determined to change my sleeping habits, I picked up a few tips from Martin, Goldman and a couple of handouts that Murphy and Hyde printed out for me.
Though Goldman’s hours are far from the average person’s sleeping period, he said he has been able to regulate his sleep with a suggestion his Los Angeles doctor gave him.
“The best piece of advice, though, is staying out in the sun for about an hour during the middle of the day, if possible,” Goldman said. “[My doctor] says the time-frame is really good to help your body start to regulate, to understand that it is noon when it is noon. I fall asleep right around 6 a.m.-ish. That certainly isn’t a usual time for someone to fall asleep, but it is pretty much constant, and it’s much better than it being so erratic.”
With the winter rain clouds parting from Santa Cruz, this technique should be useful to me.
Since beginning his change in lifestyle, Martin has noticed improvement, as well.
“Recently, I’ve just been sick of being tired all the time,” Martin said. “I’m a lot more active now and getting better sleep, so I guess the cure to my situation, at least, was just doing more stuff during the day, exercise more, eat healthier. It’s happened slowly, but I feel a lot better now than I did when I drank a bunch of caffeine during the day and stayed up all night and got very little sleep.”