Few Yalies are surprised when the sent tag on a friend’s e-mail indicates it was written at 4:30 a.m. In fact, many of them often read such early-morning missives a few minutes after they are sent.
Sleep deprivation is a fact of life at Yale and campuses across the nation. Thanks to the combined pressures of work, maintaining a social life and extracurricular commitments, dark circles and lecture-naps are familiar sights, especially during midterm season. Many students said they attempt to cope by consuming caffeine in various forms to stay awake, while a smaller percentage said they use over-the-counter depressants such as Tylenol PM to regulate what sleep they do get. Yet “sleep dep,” as it is commonly called, has its dangers. Several studies have concluded that people who have not slept in 24 hours display levels of reaction time and judgment similar to those of an individual with a blood alcohol level of 0.10, above the legal definition of intoxication.
College students are also twice as likely as the general population to fall victim to Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, a disorder similar to jet lag in which a person’s biological clock falls out of synch with local time because of altered sleeping patterns.
While some Yalies self-medicate to stave off sleep, others use medication to achieve it in the first place. Michael Schwartz ’06 takes sleeping pills such as the prescription-only Ambien in order to counteract other prescribed stimulants, and to ensure a solid night’s sleep when his schedule permits one.
“It’s almost troubleshooting for me,” he said. “If I can fix sleep and wakefulness, then I feel like I can see where my trouble is.”
Sailaja Paidipaty ’06 said she has coped with sleep deprivation to varying degrees throughout her Yale career. Although she has been getting more sleep in her junior year so far, Paidipaty said during her sophomore year she averaged around a mere six hours a night.
“During reading week my constant away message was like, ‘sleep is for the weak,’ and I kind of lived by that model,” she said.
When asked for her secret, Paidipaty replied, “loads of caffeine,” most often in the form of coffee. “I was up to three cups of coffee per day last year during reading week.”
Students’ attempts to squeeze a little more wakefulness out of the day fill Koffee Too? and Starbucks to the brim on any given weeknight. But what at first seems like a harmless rush of stimulation can result in serious problems.
Michael Alexander ’06 said he had suffered the effects of an altered sleep schedule first-hand.
“Basically daytime was nighttime for me,” he said. “Staying up for papers one after another, I would end up basically at the point where I wasn’t just staying up at night, I was staying up late through the morning. Do it enough days in a row, and I couldn’t get back,” he said.
Alexander is a contributing reporter for the News.
Alexander, who said this condition recurred regularly throughout the second semester of his sophomore year, warned that the high levels of stress associated with studying at Yale render students especially vulnerable to DSPS-like conditions.
“Certainly this is because of Yale,” he said. “If your sleep cycle is weak to being messed around with, Yale is going to get to you.”
Kevin Kulp, president of Cornerpiece Scheduling in Massachusetts and a fatigue and alertness consultant for the last 12 years, said cases like Alexander’s are relatively common among college students.
“What I tend to see a lot of, especially in people who are working night shifts or unusual hours, is that people are doing things to mess up their sleep,” Kulp said. “Whether you’ve got stimulants like caffeine or depressants like Tylenol PM, they end up messing with your sleep — The quality and time of your REM sleep is disrupted.”
Cases like Alexander’s, he said, are the result of the disruption of the circadian rhythm, the cycle that tells your body when it should be awake and when it should be sleeping. If people keep to different schedules, their circadian rhythms shift to compensate.
While Kulp said there are few physiological risks to circadian rhythm shifts themselves, evidence does suggest the general practice of altering sleep patterns can have dangerous consequences.
“On a long term basis, we tend to see that [people whose schedules have badly shifted] have higher-than-average instances of sleep apnea,” he said, referring to a condition that can cause the throat to close under its own weight for short periods of time during sleep.
Kulp said researchers believe this is most likely due to poorer health habits — such as getting less exercise — among people who keep alternative hours, rather than the result of the sleep shift itself.
Schwartz said he feels that better health habits all around would go a long way towards solving most students’ sleep issues.
“I subscribe to the theory that this is an overmedicated society in general,” Schwartz said “I just feel that if everybody got an hour of exercise a day and ate right — well, you’ve heard this spiel before.”