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May 28, 2008 > Sleep, Sleep Debt, & Drowsiness

Sleep, Sleep Debt, & Drowsiness

Common Sleep Myths Debunked

Submitted By Mai El-Sadany

When I first came to Stanford University this past fall, I was excited at the amazing variety of classes being offered in a colorful array of majors and disciplines. I was overwhelmed with the choices and not sure of which to choose. After taking the advice of many upperclassmen and looking through the class bulletin endlessly, I came across a class entitled 'Sleep and Dreams,' taught by Dr. William C. Dement. Upon hearing lots of positive feedback and exciting anecdotes about the class, I decided to take it. Now, after having completed more than half of the course, I can honestly say that 'Sleep and Dreams' has been one of the most valuable classes I have ever taken in my life. Dr. Dement, a renowned authority on the science of sleep, can always enchant his audience with intricate, firsthand experiences and truly life-saving knowledge. And it is for this reason that I have chosen to share with you some of these remarkable tidbits through the form of debunking some common myths that society has about sleep.

Myth #1: I'll just make up the missed sleep over the weekend

As a college student, I can say that I've heard this faulty statement numerous times. Students tend to use it as an excuse to pull an 'all-nighter', staying up the whole night to work on a paper or study for an exam and justifying this behavior by saying that they will sleep the whole day over the weekend. In reality, sleeping a few extra hours over the weekend is rarely the perfect solution. Every hour of sleep less than an individual's nightly requirement is permanently registered in the brain as a debt, and thus the term "sleep debt." The problem with sleep debt is that it never goes away unless a person sleeps more than his or her nightly requirement and makes up the debt completely. So if a person's nightly requirement is 9 hours of sleep, and they only get 1 hour of sleep, the night before an exam, then they will have 8 EXTRA hours of sleep to make up, in addition to the fact that they need to sleep their normal 9 hour requirement. This continuous cycle shows us why it is so hard for people to overcome their sleep debt, especially if they constantly miss their nightly sleep requirement. So, when you sleep the whole day on Saturday, you may actually be making up for sleep debt accumulated from years ago!!!

Myth #2: The side effects of not sleeping well are only minor

When a person has sleep debt, there are numerous consequences in everything he or she does. The person is more likely to make errors and their performance decreases. The ability to solve difficult puzzles or complete work that requires concentration deteriorates. Some people who experience sleep loss tend to go through mood swings; crying and euphoria have been reported. Sleep deprived individuals also tend to get angry more easily and they are rapidly provoked. Various experiments have even showed the impairment of memory with the accumulation of sleep debt. And, most importantly, sleep debt can be DEADLY. Nearly 87% of motor vehicle accidents caused by falling asleep involve a fatality!

Myth #3: Teenagers don't need a lot of sleep

Teenagers are often the ones who pull the all-nighters, sleep very little, and constantly think that they are at the top of the world. Contrary to these misconceptions, though, teenagers need around 9 hours of sleep nightly, and studies say that the average college student is only getting 6.1 hours of sleep. Beginning at the age of 15, teens scientifically need more sleep than children and adults, but they are getting significantly less. This problem is caused by a number of factors. The most important is that the brain hormone that induces sleep is produced at a later time than with children and adults. In fact, its effects don't start to kick in until around 10:30 pm. Because of this, the sleep cycle of a teenager is shifted, but of course cut off, as they have to wake up early for school in the morning. Teenagers are highly sleep deprived and serious measures should be taken to ensure that this is no longer the case.

Myth #4: If my eyelids begin to feel heavy, I should just blast some music to wake me up

The aforementioned myth is one of the most dangerous statements that a person can make as he or she is driving home at night. The onset of drowsiness is the moment that a person notices that they have to make a conscious effort to keep his or her eyes open. When yours eyelids begin to feel heavy, sleep can be as near as a few seconds away. Blasting music and even drinking coffee, under a high sleep debt level, will not keep you awake for a substantial period of time. The only solution to driving safely when you feel drowsiness is to call someone to take you home, or to park on the side of the road and take a short nap. As the distressing stories of car accidents have constantly proven to us, drowsiness, fatigue, and driving don't mix!

And on that sobering note, I leave you with Dr. Dement's famous and life-saving words, "Drowsiness is RED ALERT!"

Sources: Class Notes from Dr. Dement's Lectures & "The Stanford Sleep Book" by William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.



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