Speaker debunks sleep loss myths

by Christina Russell

Sleep deprivation is not something to yawn about. Last week Richard D. Simon Jr., MD visited Whitman to address the far-reaching implications of sleep loss among college-aged students. In his lecture “Who Needs Sleep?” he described the dangers of functioning with no sleep and strategies for combating this dangerously common problem among the late teens and early 20s demographics. Kari Martin and Erin Flaucher, Student Academic Advisors for Prentiss Hall, brought the lecture to campus. “We were really happy with the turnout,” said Martin. “[Simon] presented a lot of relevant information. I was impressed by the amount of scientific studies and specific biological reasons he offered and was amazed by the results.”

Simon is a Whitman graduate in Chemistry who went on to medical school at the University of Chicago. He is currently working at the sleep center at St. Mary’s Medical Center, serving the Tri-Cities area.

Simon started his lecture by inquiring how one might feel attending class after having just consumed three or four beers. He explained that this is the same impairment a student experiences when they show up for class having had only six hours of sleep. What happens when you get no sleep? Your body functions at the same capacity it would if you were to drink 11 beers, Simon said.

Many people lose sleep because they have something called Obstructive Sleep Apnea; that is, they snore. “The coolest thing about snoring is that it always means that you are suffocating,” said Simon sarcastically. If you know that you snore at night, Simon recommends that you seek help right away, because this obstructive problem prevents its victims from ever gaining the restorative benefits of a full-nights rest.

Sleep is too often taken for granted. Simon explained that there are five crucial components of sleep cycle that take place every night: stages one through four and REM (rapid eye movement, during which dreams occur). “If you were in stage three and four sleep, I could walk into your room, steal things and you wouldn’t notice,” said Simon. After this stage, your body becomes completely paralyzed when you dream. These natural stages must take place in order for you to maximize your sleep. However, these states are often compromised by drugs like caffeine, which Simon explained has a half-life of six hours (that is, six hours after taking it half of the drug is still active in your body) or alcohol, which, if consumed the night before your sleep, will prevent your body from going through the deep sleep cycles. Because of these factors, most college students can wake up more sleep-deprived than before they went to bed.

If you are desperate for sleep before an exam, Simon offered a fail-proof recipe: Consume 100-200 mg of caffeine (about two cups of coffee) and sleep for 10-15 minutes. This will provide you with energy for two to four hours.

Simon explained that a common misconception with sleep loss is that the body will adapt to it over time. This is not true, he said. “Your psychological perception of sleep will stabilize, but your actual sleep deprivation won’t.” This means that if you are only allowing yourself six hours of sleep, you will eventually think that this is all you need, but your body will still suffer. Simon said that by the time Thanksgiving Break rolls around, college students have on average deprived themselves of 60 hours of sleep throughout the course of the semester that they need to catch up on.

How should students combat the effects of sleep deprivation and make the most of the hours they are awake? Simon recommends purchasing a blue light box, which projects blue wavelengths of light and simulates the amount of natural light your body requires in the morning in order to be fully awake. Essentially, more light in the morning and less or no light in the evening triggers signals in your brain that promote healthy circadian (daily) rhythms. “I want you to sleep,” said Simon, “and if that means putting your head down on your desk in class and napping a nap, then do it.”