The Consequences of Varied Sleep Patterns

MC alumni
Current Stanford University student


“I’m so tired. There’s no way I’m going to be able to stay awake for class guys…I have no idea how I’m going to finish all this work—looks like I’m pulling an all-nighter.”

These are all conversations we’ve had at some point in our high-school careers. Whether you’re a budding Freshman or a seasoned Senior, you unfortunately know this dreary story all too well. This rather unfortunate phenomenon within our schools has deep, unintended consequences on our daily lives. With constantly changing deadlines and seemingly never ending exams, high-school students often view sleep as something that can be sacrificed. Students simply can’t fit everything into their schedules. With only 24 hours in a day, sleep often loses out to other responsibilities. We don’t really need sleep though—after all, we’re young and can handle it right?

This was the mentality I subscribed to throughout high school. My social and academic life took priority over sleep. Homework deadlines, final exams, and extra-curricular activities made my sleep patterns—or lack thereof—a complete mess. Sleep was a luxury that often times, I just couldn’t afford. It wasn’t until this year that I discovered the disservice I was doing to myself…

This past quarter, I took a class called Sleep and Dreams taught by Dr. William Dement, a pioneer of the sleep research field. The class focused on exploring the importance of sleep and realizing its often-overlooked importance. Through the lessons I’ve learned, I’d like to share some of this knowledge in hopes that it might have as big an impact on your everyday life as it had for me.

Everyone has an individual sleep need that must be achieved in order to feel well rested. You’ve certainly felt ready to tackle the day after a good nights sleep, and on the flipside, you’ve also felt fatigued after little rest. Our bodies have a daily need for sleep that has to be reached in order to maintain optimal waking functionality. Unfortunately, with constantly changing schedules, we lack the ability to get the sleep our bodies need. With hovering deadlines that demand to be met, we sometimes just simply don’t have control over our sleep schedules. One day, we go to sleep at midnight—the next, around two in the morning. These constantly changing sleep patterns contribute to our lack of sleep, and with few school-breaks, it gradually begins to accumulate.

As this lack of sleep begins to build up, we start developing what is known as a sleep debt. Sleep debt accumulates whenever we don’t attain our sleep need, and the loss of sleep piles into a debt. Sleep debt drives the tendency for us to feel sleepy and the size of this debt determines the intensity of this tendency. As students, we typically accumulate large amounts of sleep debt due our constantly shifting schedules. We plan our sleep schedules around our academic and social lives. Accordingly, our sleep patterns suffer and we gradually build up large amounts of sleep debt through the school year. A large sleep debt can have major impacts on our daily lives without us ever knowing the culprit.

Most importantly for students, a large sleep debt can drastically reduce peak performance and productivity during daytime activities. Dragging around a large sleep debt inhibits one’s ability to focus and remain alert. According to Dr. Dement’s book,
“learning, memory, and creativity are all severely hampered by large sleep debts”. These are all traits vital for performing well academically. Instead of trying to get ahead by staying up all those long nights, students are actually doing the complete opposite. In depriving themselves of sleep, they’re doing both their academic and social life a great disservice.

Dr. Dement is one of but many researchers in the sleep medicine field to have discovered these relationships. In a 2003 study assessing the relations between sleep patterns and academic performance, psychologists Amy Wolfson and Mary Carskadon found that erratic sleep patterns—commonly associated with high school and college aged students—were found to have negatively influenced academic performance. Students with later sleep times, reported on average, lower grades and motivation in school. There’s a wealth of research confirming this relationship between varied sleep patterns and diminishing academic performance. With increasingly later bedtimes but consistently early school times, students are getting less and less sleep, thereby accumulating larger and larger looming sleep debts. Clearly, sleep debt is a paramount issue students are forced to face. Therefore, how can we, as students, address this predicament?

Just as sleep debt accumulates whenever we don’t attain our sleep need, the flipside holds that we can reduce this debt by sleeping longer than our need. The one and only solution to reducing sleep debt is to pay it back by getting more sleep. Simple enough, right? Sadly, the harsh reality of school sometimes makes this impossible for students. In recognizing this however, there are still steps that can be taken to mitigate the negative effects of sleep debt.

To counteract the negative consequences of sleep debt, the only true solution is to get more sleep. However, during tough periods of school when this really isn’t an option, napping can be your best friend. Napping allows our body to reduce some of that sleep debt during the day. Optimally, naps should be taken during the afternoon, as this is the part of the day in which our bodies naturally have a stronger tendency for sleep. A nap will temporarily delay some of the negative side effects of sleep debt and allow you to continue pushing through your work. As soon as you get past this demanding time however, make sure to sleep in and get the rest your body deserves.

I hope that in writing this, many Sundevils will take this knowledge to heart and apply it to their everyday lives. I know all too well the tough road you all are embarking on, and I hope that this information may help you in reaching your goals. Fight on!

Written by Jessica Hong

Editor-in-Chief Jessica Hong has been part of the SUN staff since her freshman year. Previously, she served as centerspread and copy editors and has earned national "superior" ratings in writing and design. Jessica loves brie cheese, her freshman brother, and you, and hates Comic Sans and the color gray.