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Sleepy Students: The Importance of Understanding Sleep Debt

This quarter, while attending Stanford University, I have been lucky enough to take a class called ‘Sleep and Dreams,’ taught by the world famous sleep scientist, Dr. William Dement. One of our projects is a sleep outreach project, where we educate our peers about the importance of sleep, and what we have learned so far in the course. When I was in high school, I was under the grave misunderstanding that, “You’ll sleep when you’re dead.” That being said, I went about Flathead High School often like a zombie, because I had placed zero stock in the fact that nine hours of sleep a night really are necessary. I understand that as students we can find ourselves enormously busy, just with homework alone. Add in sports practice, play rehearsals, other extracurricular activities, and even a part time job, and where does that leave in room for sleep?

 Dr. Dement has taught the class about a term called sleep debt. The meaning of this term is almost exactly what it sounds like. When we deprive ourselves of sleep, and don’t restore ourselves to feeling perfectly refreshed and alert, our sleep debt is increased. Sleep deprivation is cumulative. If we accumulate hours of lost sleep, our quality of life will surely decrease. I know I experienced that during high school, along with the majority of other students. It is absolutely imperative to your safety and well being that you do your best to rid yourself of the sleep debt that you have garnered this past school year. The way to do this is get extra sleep at night, or add in naps as necessary. Think of your sleep debt as an actual debt. For every hour that you cheat yourself out of sleep, it gets added up in a sleep bank, and your life will continue to get worse until you pay off your debt. Don’t be mistaken into thinking that sleeping until one on the weekdays will get rid of your sleep debt; quite often that will just throw off your very important sleep schedule and you won’t be able to fall asleep until very late that night. Go to bed early on weekdays! Make sure you get your nine hours every single night, because I guarantee you, your life will change for the better. Believe me, Facebook will wait until the morning. I know you can’t check it at school, but borrow somebody’s Blackberry at lunch or something.

 If you all are like me, I bet you are reading this article and thinking that getting nine hours of sleep every night cannot really be that important, and there is not a chance you will get off of your computer before midnight to waste your time sleeping. However, I implore you to take this article seriously. If you allow your sleep debt to accumulate, so many areas of your waking life will be negatively affected. “Like what, Annika?” you may ask. Simple and complex tasks will both become substantially more difficult to perform. Driving tired is so unbelievably dangerous; simply type in ‘car accidents caused by sleep’ on Google and you will be shocked at the statistics piling up every day. In fact, that is one of the reasons Dr. Dement decided to start this class, to inform students that not getting enough sleep is not only unhealthy, but also dangerous.

 Your mood is most likely going to be affected by sleep debt as well. As it accumulates, it will become harder and harder to be happy or optimistic. Emotions will likely become unstable. It will also become very difficult to get you motivated to do anything, because you don’t have enough energy to accomplish anything. Without sleep, you will be cranky and irritable, and I doubt your friends will want to be around you. For example, every time my little sister, Olivia, travels somewhere for a long period of time, she is the worst mood ever once we get to our destination. For the longest time, we always got angry with her and threw phrases like ‘brat’ her way. Now we know, she can’t help when she is so tired! As Dr. Dement makes us say every day in class, “Drowsiness is red alert!” If you are drowsy, it can turn into sleep almost instantly. This means you are at serious risk of something like a car accident, where you or others can get horribly injured.

 I know I must sound like a huge Debbie Downer, but the fact of the matter is, sleep is absolutely essential to your health. Dr. Dement requires us to fill out an extensive sleep journal every day, making sure we know what time we are falling asleep and when we are waking up, along with keeping track of our alertness level throughout the day. Before this class, I was a true nonbeliever in the importance of sleep, but now I have noticed a distinct pattern in when I go to bed and wake up, and my mood and alertness levels all day. I know getting nine hours of sleep seems impossible, but take it from a busy college student, with significantly more homework than she had in high school, nine hours of sleep is very possible, and feels wonderful. If you are willing and ready to follow mine and Dr. Dement’s advice, all you need to do is plan your day out effectively, and not give into Facebook around ten at night. No earth-shattering relationship updates will happen that you won’t know about by the time you get to school, I promise. Stay healthy and make the most of your time at school; get enough sleep every night. You will feel happier and healthier. And remember, “Drowsiness is red alert!”


Source used:

Dement, William C.. Stanford Sleep Book . United States: 2002.


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