Collegiate drinking is a well-documented social phenomenon, as is the tendency for college students to sacrifice sleep for the sake of work, academics and social interaction — which may include drinking.
A new Yale study authored by Lisa Fucito, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, seeks to establish better education and treatment systems to prevent these two issues from getting out of hand. Fucito’s team interviewed college students to determine the effectiveness of various types of online health education models that many schools require of incoming freshmen. The goal was to better understand gaps in the alcohol education of incoming students, particularly how alcohol use relates to healthy sleep schedules.
“There’s a lot of good data that backs up the idea that sleep deprivation is really bad for memory and other cognitive functions we need to perform well,” said Fucito. “The data doesn’t support the idea that we should be pulling all-nighters studying to improve our performance on tests.”
When a person consumes alcohol past a certain point, it acts as a depressant, causing tiredness or lethargy. However, according to Don Li GRD ’19, third year M.D./Ph.D. student at the School of Medicine, when the drink begins to wear off, the body will be stimulated by the metabolization of the alcohol. Since many people tend to drink shortly before going to bed, the stimulation disrupts the sleeping process.
“You have a group of neurons in the upper pons area that helps to govern sleep,” said Li. “One of the things that alcohol does is it prevents it from shifting to orexin and melatonin that help you go into REM sleep.”
Orexin and melatonin are hormones that lead people to sleep without disturbance. Without them, the body cannot move out of more restless stages of the sleep cycle, and as a result, the person cannot have a full night’s sleep. When someone consumes alcohol just before falling asleep, Fucito said, he may wake up much earlier than he or she intended and be unable to go back to sleep, or he may wake up multiple times during the night. This pattern, she said, affects more than how tired a person may feel.
Irregular sleep patterns, such as low-sleep weekdays and heavy-sleep weekends, disrupt a wide range of biological processes tied to sleep, said Fucito, such as cortisol production, which is tied to stress control.
“Not just biological processes of sleep can be altered, but essentially, all biological processes are timed to a clock based on sleep,” said Fucito. “Your immune function and many other functions can be affected by your sleep schedule.”
As a result, irregular sleep schedules can directly harm students in a wide range of ways, from memory production to disease prevention.
Li pointed to a study showing that mice who are sleep-deprived lose any capacity to form long-term memories. While irregular sleep cycles are not totally analogous to severe sleep deprivation, he said, the long-term memory capacity of students may also take a hit.
But that message can be hard to convey to college students. As one test participant asked, “This is supposed to be the best four years of your life, so why sleep?”
The study also looked at ways for students to improve their sleep patterns. Sleep barriers such as television and laptops tended to excite participants and make it harder for them to get to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Li suggested that students should engage in “sleep hygienics,” or activities meant to make it easier to fall asleep and to transition into deep sleep. He said students should try to minimize their time in the bedroom or on their bed for reasons other than sleep, such as working or reading for class, because it creates a different association with the bed. Solutions like these, he said, would help students fall asleep quicker and get to REM sleep faster.
Fucito said one of the more important findings of the study was a lack of knowledge about the relationship between alcohol use and sleep.
One participant claimed, “If I drink, I sleep so well. I don’t wake up so, for me, somehow drinking on the weekends helps me to get sleep. I couldn’t sleep during the weekdays, and weekends I party and drink and I feel better, actually, because I can sleep well.”
But, said Fucito, this was far from the case. In the long term, heavy alcohol use makes sleep deprivation a serious risk, she said. That misunderstanding demonstrated the need for the education program that the team hopes to develop over the next few months, she added.
Yale requires all incoming freshman to take an online alcohol education course.