Irregular sleep patterns plague students

by Helena Ball

It's 12:45 a.m. on a weeknight, and sophomore Lisa Ramodhar sits at a round table with two of her friends on the fourth floor of Gelman Library. To her, the night is still young, and sleep is nowhere in sight.

"I sleep one and a half to three hours every night," Ramodhar said. "I figure, I'm very social, and I want to know what goes on with my friends, but you can't do that and go to school and work and sleep at the same time."

"I've chosen not to sleep," she added.

Ramodhar's late nights and irregular sleeping schedules are not that uncommon to GW or college students in general, sleep experts say. The National Sleep Foundation says lack of sleep makes people less productive at their usual activities and may even cause primary insomnia when traditional sleep patterns are attempting to be maintained. And as final exams and end-of-year papers are rapidly approaching, now is the time to be aware of the importance of sleep.

"For young adults, sleep is often the last item on a long list of priorities that often run from social activities to homework," said Daniel Lewin, GW assistant professor of pediatrics and behavioral medicine. "Prioritizing sleep is critical for health, optimal psychological functioning, learning and brain development."

Freshman Ron Strasik said, "Sometimes I pull the all-nighters because I procrastinate so much that I have to go to 7-Eleven with my friend and buy herbal pills so that I can stay up to study.

Lewin said anti-sleeping pills, food and caffeinated drinks can rob individuals of sleep and are detrimental to health. Chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with learning, cause mood disturbance and has been associated with weight gain, Lewin said. He added that lack of sleep can cause decreased functioning of the immune system, making sleepy students more prone to illness.

A person's sleep schedule is regulated by a biological clock set by the amount of daylight the individual is exposed to, the NSF says. The body controls hormones, body temperature and other factors for feelings of tiredness or alertness.

The NSF recommends young adults get between eight and a half to nine and a quarter hours of sleep nightly.

"People are falling to what we call the 'late-sleep phase syndrome,' which means people fall asleep later and later until you can't function, unless you go to bed at 2 a.m. and wake up at noon," said Phillip Lawrence Pearl, associate professor of neurology at GW.

Pearl said college-age students have a feeling of novelty that comes with nocturnal activities.

"Adolescents have such a strong desire for novelty that it overwhelms the drives that are pushing us to go to sleep," Pearl said. He said the Internet, chat rooms, instant messaging, computer games and television are all examples of novelties.

"Pathological advances are tipping students' irregular sleep cycle and are very disruptive," Pearl said.

"It is a common problem in adolescents," he added, "and it can develop very quickly in college."

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