CaliforniaAggie: The science of sleep by a chronic insomniac

8 AM classes, hammocks in the trees and seats in the back of the classroom all have one thing in common: sleepy students. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the national economy loses $100 billion annually on the direct and indirect impacts of daytime sleepiness and sleep disorders. For college students, sleep deprivation can correspond with lower grades, in addition to the universal side effects of temperamental behavior and decreased physical wellbeing including weight gain.   One University of Davis student gives insight into what it’s like to be a chronic insomniac.

  • Half of University of California-Davis’ college students claim sleep-deprivation
  • Body has two modes of sleep, REM & NREM
  • Sleep deprivation can lead to decreased physical and mental health

By Amy Stewart

Two people with sleep disorders sharing a bedroom can make for interesting nights, to say the least.

I have chronic insomnia; there can be multiple nights in a row where I’m unable to fall asleep until four or five o’clock in the morning. Taking my prescribed sleeping pills once in a while helps but leads to sleep talking, such as the time I climbed into my loft bed and treated my roommate to a lengthy speech about the possible evolutionary origins of the fear of falling.

I have no memory of talking about this, but I did so coherently enough that she thought I was awake.

My sleeping problems are not too unusual. According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health, about 30 to 40 percent of adults say they have some symptoms of insomnia within a given year, and about 10 to 15 percent of adults say they have chronic insomnia.

Insomnia can be caused either by stress or by some kind of underlying medical condition. A traumatic event, such as divorce or death of a loved one, can make people toss and turn. Medical conditions such as pain, menstruation and side effects of medications can also make it difficult to fall asleep.

Insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation, a condition with which college students in particular are familiar. According to the most recent National College Health Assessment, more than half of surveyed UC Davis students don’t get enough sleep to feel rested, and nearly a fifth have a big or very big problem with sleepiness.

“Sleep deprivation causes stress, moodiness, accidents and immune system impairment,” said Dorje Jennette, a doctor of psychology at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at UC Davis.

My insomnia is exacerbated (if not caused) by my off-kilter circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is the body’s pattern of being asleep and being alert. Exposure to light sets off a process starting at the retina in the eye and going to a certain area of the brain called the supra-chiasmatic nucleus, which then controls the release of hormones and other functions that control how sleepy or awake we feel.

However, the circadian rhythm is not only controlled by whether there is light outside. When we stay up all night trying to finish a paper, the end result could be suffering through an early morning class with heavy eyes and a slow mind.

“With irregular sleep schedules, we’re effectively giving ourselves jet lag,” Jennette said.

We all love jet lag, don’t we?

Though my sleeping problems are intensely aggravating and necessitate a great deal of coffee in order to get to my classes, my roommate’s problems can be more frightening.

“Insomnia, nightmares, sleepwalking and I’ve had a few night terrors,” said Nicole Hooper, a junior chemistry major.

There are two main types of sleep, REM (rapid-eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid-eye movement). Adults spend 20 to 25 percent of their sleeping time in the REM stage through four or five cycles of the two types. During REM sleep, brain activity, heart rate and breathing are surprisingly similar to being awake. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, much like normal dreams, but they are typically much more vivid.

REM sleep is also characterized by temporary muscle paralysis. This is why people don’t typically act out their dreams or move in their sleep. When this process doesn’t work properly, the result is REM Behavior Disorder, where individuals begin acting out their dreams.

NREM sleep, on the other hand, is the deep sleep portion of the night. What few dreams that do occur are vague and disconnected. It’s also the stage at which sleepwalking and night terrors take place, but these are more common in children than adults.

The tips online of trying to get a good night’s sleep are things everyone has heard before: try to keep a regular sleep schedule even on weekends, avoid caffeine several hours before bed and try relaxation exercises or meditation. If the problems continue, talk to a doctor and they can prescribe medication or refer you to a sleep study.

Now, where did I put my bed-time tea…

Related Links:

National Sleep Foundation: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/
WebMD, sleep disorders health center: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/important-sleep-habits
Tree Community, sleep disorders: http://www.tree.com/health/sleep-disorders.aspx
Sleep disorders, Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/sleep/
National Center on Sleep Disorders, National Institute for Health: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/ncsdr/

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