Zzzz's Get Degrees

by Ashley Frye

Jacob has a chapter’s worth of problems for Chemistry, a creative writing assignment, and seven chapters to read for English Lit, all due by tomorrow. He also has to study for his upcoming Biology and Psychology tests. So, he takes a sip of coffee, looks at the clock chime midnight, and starts working into the latest hours of darkness.

“All-nighters” are a relatively common phenomenon for college students. With obligations like club meetings, jobs and attending classes, it can be difficult to finish all work in time. US Health reports that, not only is the average GPA lower for those who pull all-nighters than those who do not, but this form of extreme sleep deprivation can actually decrease one’s attention span and memory. That being said, even students who avoid all-nighters may still not be getting the recommended eight hours of sleep. High levels of stress are a major cause of insomnia, and college students are reporting record levels of stress. The resulting poor sleeping habits, especially for college students, dramatically increase the likelihood of developing long-term mental health and memory issues over time.

In a well-rested brain, the amygdala (area responsible for emotion and memory) is coupled with the medial prefrontal cortex. The frontal lobe processes stimuli and the prefrontal cortex allows higher-level cognitive thinking and personality expression. A lack of sleep, however, forces the amygdala to work in tandem with a different region of the brain – the locus coeruleus, which releases norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that is involved with attention, memory, the physiological stress response and the sleep-wake cycle. The norepinephrine released during a sleep-deprived state causes amygdala activity to increase by 60 percent. A spike in norepinephrine levels also increases adrenaline production, which in turn increases heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, leading to heart palpitations, dizziness and increased anxiety. Beyond the increased levels of adrenaline, individuals suffering from a lack of sleep may experience more rapid and heightened mood changes.

Psychological studies of teenagers have found that it is extremely common for sleep disorders to precede the development of a variety of different anxiety disorders. As a point, more than 50 percent of adults who are suffering from anxiety disorders report sleep problems such as insomnia. Furthermore, a study on quality of life and sleep deprivation documented that insufficient sleep led to more frequent physical and mental distress as well as activity limitations and depression.

These symptoms increase the likelihood that an individual will engage in more risk-taking behavior, such as smoking, inactivity and excessive drinking. A region of the brain known as the insular cortex can play a role in this phenomenon, as activity in this region of the brain increases when an individual has not gotten enough sleep. The insular cortex helps control motor skills and cognitive functioning as well, and neuroimaging has suggested that its activity can cause higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Harvard Health reports that upwards of 65 percent of adults and 90 percent of children who suffer from depression have some form of insomnia or another sleep disorder. Insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation are often experienced prior to developing depression, and those who suffer from these phenomena are up to four times more likely to develop depressive symptoms than their well-rested counterparts. 69 percent of patients diagnosed with depression have reported a lack of sleep prior to the onset of their symptoms. Those who suffer from insomnia and depression are also more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that suicide is the leading cause of death among college students, which could be due to the prevalence of sleep disorders and deprivation.

In addition to its association with anxiety disorders and depression, sleep deprivation also increases the risk of developing bipolar disorder and worsening symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It has previously been discussed that a lack of sleep adversely affects an individual’s mood and extreme sleep deprivation can trigger a manic episode or bipolar depression. Furthermore, lack of sleep can exacerbate pre-existing symptoms of hyperactivity or emotional instability as well as prompt the appearance of these symptoms in those who have not been diagnosed with ADHD.

It is obvious that running on little sleep can drastically affect your mental health. While it can be difficult for college students to use their limited down time to get work done, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation prompt a crucial question: Is it really worth it?