The Epidemic of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep is a fundamental aspect of human health, and the normalization of sleep deprivation is the result of a toxic cultural perception on productivity.

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By Joanna Meng

Sleep is fundamental to the biology of almost every animal, so why do we so readily give it up? As a student in one of the most academically rigorous high schools in the country, I am intimately familiar with the motivations to put off sleep, as well as the clear toll doing so has on my daily life. However, I have come to learn that there are a number of hidden costs to this sleep deprivation epidemic. These revelations prompted me to consider why this issue is so prominent yet normalized and what we can do to try and combat it.

Sleep is generally seen as a period for the brain to reset and collect itself in preparation for the next day. For this reason, sleep deprivation can affect both the immediate performance and long-term maintenance of neural functions. I was made aware of how seriously it affects your body when presented with a lecture on sleep deprivation in my AP Psychology class. It discussed the variety of effects, from increased risk of cardiovascular issues, to impaired immune function, to a significant chance of developing dementia 10 years earlier than when it would normally occur. Much of this information was startling, as you rarely think that far in advance for what feels like a simple, short-term issue. The connection between not sleeping much and feeling tired the next day is a very clear one. It is much harder to connect not sleeping for long periods of time to heart trouble or sickness.

However, our readiness to accept even tiredness is just as worrying. In students, especially those in “accelerated” or “specialized” programs, the culture surrounding sleep is deeply problematic. Many, including myself, might show up to school on five or less hours of sleep because we were finishing up a project or cramming for a test. However, anyone who has experienced it can tell you how hard it is to think properly when you are that tired. Evidence demonstrates that in most cases, when sleep is sacrificed to study for a test, the effect on cognitive function and memory often counteracts the benefits of review.

Sleep deprivation also has severe effects on our societal function. Daylight saving time acts as an optimal demonstration of this effect as the country collectively experiences an extra hour of sleep and then loses that hour later in the year. On days when an hour is gained, the rate of heart attack and traffic accidents experiences a notable reduction. These studies also explain why many historic tragedies, such as Chernobyl and Challenger, were, in some way, linked to a lack of sleep.

Sleep itself is a fundamental aspect of our body’s circadian rhythm, the roughly 24-hour hormonal clock that regulates temperature and metabolism. It is a system defined by sleep, and getting less than the recommended eight hours can disrupt it. It helps organize the function of your gut and regulate mood, and its destabilization can lead to the development of obesity and mental health disorders.

Chronic sleep deprivation is generally not an issue faced by biological evolution: you don’t see any animals with a poor sleep schedule because they just sleep when they feel like it. It is a uniquely human problem generated by our intense focus on productivity.

Personally, many of my issues with sleeping on time come from my workload and my aversion to the work itself. For me and countless others, the night acts as personal downtime when I am largely in control of what I am doing. After coming home from school, I need a break, which leads to procrastination. When I eventually get around to starting my work, it tends to be later in the night, and I frequently get distracted. While it is possible for me to get all my work done early and get to sleep on time, it requires very strong impulse control and diligence. This condition can be very demanding and asks you to act robotically, as if all you need to be happy is enough work. The transition from remote to in-person learning has only made this problem more challenging.

This issue is not isolated in the high school experience and is more representative of our broader culture. The concept of a nine-to-five job leaves a good amount of time in the day in theory, but work often bleeds into free time. In general, we prioritize individual productivity over almost everything else. Your value and well-being are tied to how much you contribute to the economy—consequently, many low-wage workers frequently work longer under exhausting conditions, which can lead to excessive stress that directly affects sleep quality.

The most immediate problem, however, is that this issue is seen as fairly normal by most people. In my own life, I am working to change my mentality and better organize myself to get more sleep, as being less tired often makes work easier, which creates a positive feedback loop. I am also working to make those around me more aware of the problem. This issue can be addressed on an individual level to a certain extent: simply being aware of the effects makes it harder to brush them off.

However, as established, much of the issue is out of the control of the individual. To fight the disease instead of the symptom, we should strive to relieve pressure from work and schooling. With these efforts, we can create a greater distinction between work and personal time, as well as reduce dependence on working long grueling hours.

In terms of school, specifically high school, there are a number of tactics that can help relieve stress, such as a reexamination of the calculation and purpose of grading. Many schools have also experimented with opening an hour later and have seen substantial improvements. Additionally, homework load should be reconsidered. Though much of it acts as a supplement to in-class learning, it can end up being redundant. There is no concrete solution for every school—for example, Stuyvesant opening an hour later would mean the day ends at 4:35 p.m.—but a general awareness of the issue can prompt discussion for this specific but wide-ranging change.

In terms of the workplace, collectively advocating for the restructuring of many work environments is an important step. The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged some policies, such as remote work that does not follow a five-day week. Remote work can be complicated, as it often involves working at home, but if properly implemented, it allows for greater control over when and how work is done. However, this modification generally only addresses salaried, white-collar jobs. For people who work for wages, greater regulation and an increase in the minimum wage can help reduce this dependence. The problem could be further solved by the acknowledgement of workers as people, as well as the fact that sleep improves productivity.

Some can cope with less sleep better than others, but this ability does not mean that they should be content with it. Misconceptions surrounding sleep are some of the most problematic aspects of modern society. All evidence suggests that it is an argument with no counterpoint—more sleep leads to a healthier population, and a healthier population gets more done. Everyone must be aware of this concept, and we must make a conscious effort to demoralize sleep deprivation.