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Eight Hours a Day Keep a Doctor Away: the Science of Sleep Deprivation

The most typical part of university culture is the glorification of sleep deprivation – it’s also one of the most concerning because of its implications for our health

Photo by Jon Huss (Flickr)

by Patrycja Domeradzka

No one wants to be perceived as a slacker. Exercise, household chores, part-time work, unpaid work experience, coping with course workload – time management can only stretch the 24 hours so much. Sleep is usually the one thing which loses in this equation – even though it’s probably one of the most important.


We’ve all heard our teachers and parents preaching about getting eight hours of sleep a night. However, to many of us the necessity of it still doesn’t register. Sleep is as crucial to our health as nutrition and oxygen. Peaceful rest allows your body to restore and recharge: production of cytokines strengthens your immunity, your brain forms new connections between neurons to aid memory, hormone production is facilitated.


Previous research has linked sleep loss to multiple health-related issues. Most surprisingly, it has been found that lack of sleep affects body weight, specifically the two hormones which control feelings of hunger and satiety. With sleep loss come increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates which can set you back quite a lot in your diet. Additionally, release of insulin is affected as well, leading to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.


The mental toll sleep deprivation takes on your mind isn’t just restricted to grumpiness and fatigue. Prolonged sleep loss could lead to hallucinations ranging from minor visual distortions and depersonalization to frank hallucinations and illusions. Everyone differs in their proneness to this reaction; however, some studies report rapid development of symptoms after just one full night without any sleep with complex hallucinations and disordered thinking observed after full 48 to 90 hours. Sleep is even more crucial to those who are already affected by mental health problems: sleep loss can trigger mania in people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as increase severity of depressive symptoms, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.


The investigation into sleep deprivation continues as new research emerges. Recently, a small study investigated the link between sleep loss and early onset of Alzheimer’s disease, specifically the accumulation of beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid is a metabolic waste product found in the fluid between neurons. Sleep plays a crucial role in washing the beta-amyloid out as increased levels of it have been linked to impaired brain function. Notably, in Alzheimer’s disease beta-amyloid plaques prevent proper communication between neurons. Sleep loss disrupts the process of clearance which results in a built-up of beta-amyloid which could put one at a high risk of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As the study is quite small, further research is necessary to fully understand the effects of beta-amyloid built-up and the effect of sleep loss. However, it can be safely assumed that it’s a sign that sleep deprivation might have an even more devastating impact on our health than we have realised previously.


We can’t escape knowledge about what, when, and how to eat, the benefits of physical activity or best skincare routines but little to no mind is paid to the importance of sleep. To some degree, putting value to sleep patterns is viewed negatively as it has nothing to do with increasing productivity or self-development. This harmful notion completely ignores a large body of evidence which shows that sleep is one of the most important needs to fulfil. Sleep hygiene and knowledge about sleep disorders can make a world of difference to a person’s wellbeing. So, make a full eight hours part of your new year’s resolutions and don’t ever feel guilty over not pulling all-nighters. 

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