We'll sleep when we're dead

Sleep deprivation doesn’t deserve glorification

Kate Lord, Science & Technology Editor - November 28, 2018

Puffy-eyed and greasy-haired, a McGill student emerges into the crisp morning air after a night spent holed up in the library. The half-semester’s worth of lectures they just watched were tedious, but, with the help of 1.5X accelerated audio-visual speed, they were preferable to a biweekly trek to Leacock 132. The caffeine pills are beginning to wear off, so they start to head home for a pre-quiz nap. Almost reaching the Milton gates, the student remembers their term paper due next week. Perhaps, they realize, it might be a good idea to plan on another all-nighter tonight.

A full-time undergraduate degree demands a delicate, and perhaps impossible, three or four-year balancing act. For many students, this might include extracurricular activities, a part-time job, and maintaining a social life all on top of coursework. Too often, regular sleep becomes a luxury reserved for summer and winter vacation. The variability of day-to-day schedules makes it all too easy to ignore common-sense suggestions from parents and the medical community to maintain regular wake-up and bedtime hours.

“The student lifestyle itself is so sporadic that I don’t think it’s conducive to a regular schedule,” Stephanie Fernandes, U3 Arts, said. “[We] don’t have the same nine-to-five lifestyle [as many adults].”

“The student lifestyle itself is so sporadic that I don’t think it’s conducive to a regular schedule,” Stephanie Fernandes, U3 Arts, said. “[We] don’t have the same nine-to-five lifestyle [as many adults].”

In some ways, the irregularity of sleep-wake activity patterns can be an exciting part of the student experience. A sunrise Mount Royal hike, a 2 p.m. nap, and a 2 a.m. Chef-on-Call feast with classes scattered in between, could be a student’s average Wednesday. Further, while 8:35 a.m. start times are inevitable for many in prerequisite-heavy programs, those with more flexible course options are generally free to mould their schedules to their individual preferences.

“Unless you have a reason to get up at 8 a.m. for a class or a meeting, why would you do it?” Fernandes asked.

Although it’s easy to revere classmates with perfect attendance to 8:35 a.m. lectures, these behaviours may be more predetermined than one might think.

Every individual has a genetically-encoded chronotype—the behavioural manifestation of their circadian, or 24-hour, rhythms. An individual’s chronotype dictates their natural preference for sleep, and thus their tendency to identify more as an early bird or a night owl. Students may also experience a pattern of erratic energy levels throughout their days—falling asleep in class at 3 p.m. or feeling excessively animated in Milton B at 4 a.m. In an ideal world, a student would organize their schedule based solely on their internal alertness and productivity rhythms.

“If we have to live within socially-set schedules, for some, it will be easier to get up very early for a class, and […] difficult to be alert in the evening,” Nicolas Cermakian, associate in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, and director of the Laboratory of Molecular Chronobiology at the Douglas Institute, said. “We have a rhythm of alertness and of cognitive capacity [which determines our] way of taking in information and making sense out of it, memorizing it, and so on.”

Despite their genetic makeups urging them to sleep, inflexible program schedules often force students to campus for classes at less-than-ideal times.

“If you are a [night owl] who would rather get up at 11 or noon but has to get up for your first [early morning] class, you’ll lose sleep,” Cermakian said. “Even if you need to get up at 6 a.m., you won’t be able to go to sleep before the early morning hours.”

The desynchronization of chronotypes and course loads likely contributes to university students’ notorious sleep deprivation. In a recent survey of McGill students conducted by The McGill Tribune*, 91 per cent of respondents reported sleeping less than the recommended eight hours on an average weeknight. Furthermore, 22 per cent of students said they regularly sleep less than six hours. In a culture that promotes academic excellence and extracurricular involvement as prerequisites for graduate school admission and job market success, as well as the necessity of social engagement for personal fulfillment, it is unsurprising that sleeping is low on the list of many students’ priorities.

“McGill [students] and students in general think that sleep is that very last thing that you should take into account,” Angel Yu, U3 Physiology and Computer Science, said. “You [would] sacrifice sleep [before] anything else.”

McGill doesn’t have a Fall reading week, rendering the idea of a fall ‘midterm season’ that begins and ends during a set interval of dates somewhat of a fallacy. After add-drop finishes, the tide of assignments, midterms, projects, and presentations rarely ceases until the semester ends. With an overload of schoolwork, sometimes an all-nighter is a student’s only option. Come the end of classes, McLennan Library extends its 24-hour opening hours to cover the weekend, ominously indicating the arrival of finals season and the departure of anything resembling a regular sleeping schedule.

As campus libraries begin to fill beyond capacity at all hours of the day and night, under-eye bags become badges of dogged motivation, and all-nighters become work ethic bragging points among stressed-out students. Attitudes on campus, consciously or not, romanticize sleep deprivation.

"As campus libraries begin to fill beyond capacity at all hours of the day and night, under-eye bags become badges of dogged motivation, and all-nighters become work ethic bragging points among stressed-out students."

“100 per cent, I would say that people glorify sleeplessness [at McGill],” Yu said. “I don’t know if it’s intentional, [...] but it’s definitely a conversation piece.”

On McGill’s campus, obligatory interactions with acquaintances from classes, clubs, or first-year residence are unavoidable. Complaints of minimal sleep and tiredness present themselves as easy options for disconcertingly-relatable small talk. Frequently, however, a casual conversation about needing more sleep can indirectly exalt unhealthy work ethics.

“[When talking about sleep deprivation], there are two sides to the coin,” Fernandes said. “There’s the self-deprecating humor that’s seen in memes and internet culture, but there’s also […] the people who praise [sleeplessness] in terms of their work ethic [.…] Putting in people’s faces [the idea that] they work so much harder because they’re up later, when really it’s just more unhealthy.”

In the Tribune’s survey, 76 per cent of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “McGill has a healthy sleep culture.” Indeed, many a Premiere Moisson lunchtime conversation equates sleeping less with trying harder.

“Sleep deprivation can definitely [be] a humble brag,” Hannah Bursey, U2 Arts, said. “The idea that you have control over your bodily needs [or] that you can overcome sleep deprivation because you are just that in control of your life [.…] The idea that ‘I don’t need sleep, sleep is for the weak.’”

The prevalent ‘work-hard, play-hard’ mentality on campus hardly encourages healthy sleep habits. Characterized by multi-day competitive drinking events like Science Games and Carnival, McGill’s intense party culture complements its academic intensity to the detriment of a healthy student sleep schedule.

While a night out might result in some missed or irregular sleep, regularly staying out late, and, specifically, engaging in recurrent binge drinking, could result in sleep disorders. Even when planning on staying home on a Friday night, the ‘fear of missing out,’ or FOMO, perpetuated by the constant bombardment of Instagram stories, can influence a student to choose partying over sleeping. A recent study from McGill’s Department of Psychology, found frequent experiences of FOMO to be associated with increased fatigue and stress as well as decreased sleep on both a daily basis and throughout the course of the semester.

Keeping up with the demanding academic and social obligations of university life while battling chronic exhaustion can take a serious toll on mental health.

“The link, for me, between my sleeping habits and my mental health has been incredibly strong,” Clare Wright, U3 Science, said. “It’s a cycle of sleeping [badly] then feeling [badly] so that I start sleeping even worse, and, then, I feel even worse.”

The relationship between sleep and mental health is complex: While sleeping poorly can lead to feelings of anxiety and discontent, unnecessary sleep can also have consequences.

“Too much sleep [can] induce depressive symptoms,” Henry Olders, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, said. “That’s a problem as […] depressed people then just want to stay in bed, so it’s a vicious circle.”

Yu reported similar findings regarding her own mental health.

“When [your] mental health is awful, you don’t want to get up and you don’t want to face the world,” Yu said. “That leads to more sleeping. I think that’s the cycle that you need to break in order to help uplift your mental health.”

The surprising, but prevalent, use of sleep deprivation as an effective antidepressant further complicates the relationship between sleep and mental health.

“If you keep [a depressed patient] awake, then they will, clearly, not get much sleep […] or much REM [stage] sleep particularly,” Olders said. “The next day, their depression will be considerably improved in about 60-70 percent [of cases]. They’ll feel much better, […and] it often happens on the very same day. There’s no waiting weeks or months for the antidepressant to kick in.”

"Since sleep deprivation is a common trigger of manic episodes, Olders described how, by depriving a patient with depressive symptoms of sleep, their mood will be moved across the depression-mania continuum, hopefully, toward greater balance."

Depression and mania, marked by excessive euphoria, arousal, and energy levels, lie on opposing ends of the bipolar mood scale. Since sleep deprivation is a common trigger of manic episodes, Olders described how, by depriving a patient with depressive symptoms of sleep, their mood will be moved across the depression-mania continuum, hopefully, toward greater balance.

“The side effect [to this treatment], of course, is that you can actually […] switch [the patient] rapidly from being depressed to being fully manic, which is a problem,” Olders said.

The mental effects of persistent fatigue might vary greatly, but the physical consequences of an irregular sleep schedule are consistent.

“If you’re working during the night and exposed to [artificial] light, then you’re not secreting [the hormone] melatonin,” Olders said. “Melatonin suppresses insulin secretion, and too much insulin is very likely responsible for obesity, type two diabetes, and probably dementia and cancer [.…] These are really diseases of aging, but we now see kids with type two diabetes.”

The long-term consequences of poor sleep habits might seem of little concern to the caffeine-plied student cramming half a semester’s worth of lecture recordings for their final next week. However, even amidst the stress and excitement of a culminating semester, small tweaks to a schedule can significantly improve concentration, alertness, and general well-being.

“Even if you go to bed late, even if you pull an all-nighter, do not sleep in the morning, because that’s when you’ll get the most REM [deep] sleep,” Olders said. “You don’t want too much REM sleep because that causes depressive symptoms.”

When it comes to mid-day tiredness, short naps may be a strategic solution to maintain productivity.

“If you can’t stay awake, nap for about 10 or 15 minutes,” Olders said. “If you nap for longer, you induce sleep inertia, […] which means that your brain doesn’t work. It takes 45 minutes to an hour for that fog to lift. So, you really are quite dysfunctional if you have a long nap.”

According to Cermakian, beyond strategic napping, a regular eating schedule—even in the absence of a stable sleeping schedule—can help to limit the harmful metabolic effects that tend to come with an inconsistent bedtime.

“[If] you snack during the night, this can have an impact on many of the [circadian] clocks [which] regulate your digestion and […] metabolism,” Cermakian said. “Your body is more prepared to process food during the day than during the night [….] If you eat the wrong things at the wrong time, then your body will not know what to do with the food. Either it will not metabolize it well and not be efficient, or it could lead to metabolic problems [such as] storage of fat and so on.”

Although ‘self-care’ is often taken to mean hour-long baths, Netflix Original binges, and cuddling with puppies, reframing sleep as a primary tenet of self-care could push it higher up a student’s list of priorities.

“[Sleep] is definitely self-care,” Wright said. “It ties into being aware of yourself and your limits [.…] Self-care is not just caring for your mind, it’s also caring for your physical body […] which, in turn, helps your mind feel better.”

As students battling fatigue search for the best way to fit their 28-hour to-do lists into a 24-hour day, broader culture continues to romanticize the university experience as the most enlightening, exciting, and best years of a person’s life. While succeeding at McGill should not necessitate chronic sleep deprivation and exhaustion, as the lived experiences of McGill students can attest, these are the norms.

The author of this article distributed the survey to the McGill student body using an anonymous Google form. The survey used a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended questions about students’ experiences with sleep schedules and sleep culture at McGill. During the data-collection period, the author posted the survey link to various McGill community groups on Facebook and Reddit over the course of nine days from Nov. 13 to Nov. 22. In total, 63 students responded to the survey.