To Sleep, Or Not to Sleep

Harvard students need to make sleep a higher priority

I have slept eight-plus hours every night for the past week.

I know what you’re thinking: “How is that possible?!” Or maybe you aren’t thinking much at all, since you’re so sleep-deprived.

At this school, sleep is among the lowest priorities on most every student’s list. Extracurriculars, socializing, homework, watching the election results and the Red Sox, Facebook-stalking, checking email—among other things—all come before sleeping. When we hear that someone is getting a lot of sleep, we automatically assume that the person has mono (or some other disease that causes a person to sleep more than five hours a night), is a loser, is incredible at managing time, or just not taking on enough. Five to six hours of sleep is the norm, four is admirable, and three implies superhuman abilities.

Unfortunately, my eight hours of sleep per night was barely enough for me this week. At least I didn’t doze off in the front row of my thrilling social anthropology lecture again, but I still took a little nap in Cabot Library. I’m sure I needed the sleep, but I felt guilty about my inability to stay awake and my inability to be as intense as my sleep-deprived peers.

Fortunately, I don’t have mono. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep and one acquires a “sleep debt” without this optimum amount of sleep. Sleep debt continually builds up every time you do not sleep enough, and can only be reversed by sleeping more than your optimum. Drowsiness is a sign that your body has accumulated sleep debt. Health experts have proven that teenagers and young adults need even more sleep than adults. According to the 2003 Gallup Youth Survey, 78 percent of American teenagers felt they did not get enough sleep and only 22 percent felt that they got enough sleep.

So what are we doing? What are we accomplishing by not sleeping? Sleep deprivation certainly doesn’t do anything for our physical appearance—getting a good night’s rest is crucial for good skin and surprisingly enough, for losing weight. Besides making you look like a train-wreck, sleep deprivation can make you feel disgusting as well: a lack of rest increases stress levels and reduces that elusive productivity that we’re all so worried about.

Even worse, the effects are long term. Accumulation of sleep debt has been proven to cause both psychological and physical health problems in the future. The absurd quantities of caffeine that we use to jolt ourselves awake also cannot be good for us.

This being college and all, getting too little sleep is a way of life. It’s a vicious cycle—we don’t sleep to catch up on work, but as a result of not sleeping, we’re less productive and less effective at working. That leads to longer working hours, which leads to even less sleep.

Sometimes the solution isn’t to continue to push ourselves even harder, but to just go to sleep. With so many things to do and opportunities to be had at college, there is the mentality that not a single moment can be wasted. Yet we should all keep in mind that sleeping is a productive activity—not a waste of time. I am not proposing that everyone should schedule their lives around sleeping eight hours a day, I am just encouraging people to place sleeping a little higher on their priority list. As easy as it is to push sleeping to the side, I think you’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel, not to mention how much more efficiently you’ll work after just a few more hours of sleep per week.

So next time you find yourself drifting off in your favorite class, instead of upping the caffeine, make more time to sleep. It’ll probably be easier now that the World Series and the elections are over. At least one of them ended well.

Jenny Tsai ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.