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Sleep: an unconscious world of its own

Have you ever wondered why all of the other kids in preschool were able to take naps, but you were not? You might not be alone.

Senior Tom Penner’s sleep pattern varies on a broad spectrum. Some nights, he can easily fall asleep around 11:30 pm. Other nights, Penner will be lying in bed between 5:00 and 7:00 am trying to fall asleep.

“If I’m sleeping normally, I will be sleeping at 11:00 pm. But sometimes when it’s bad, it’s either 3:00 or 4:00 am,” said Penner. “If it gets past 6:00 or 7:00 am and I have class on the early side, then I don’t even sleep for that day. My earliest class is at 8:00 am. So if it gets to be about 5:00 or 5:30, then I wouldn’t sleep because it would be too hard to wake up.”

Penner’s insomnia, as determined by his doctor, is not so bad, he says. Since he is awake while the rest of the world is asleep, he uses his time to his advantage to get things done. With all of the extra hours in the day, Penner was able to start a business selling Ray Bans Sunglasses on EBay and Craigslist. This business helped support Penner throughout high school. He likes to call this time of insomnia as “Tom time.”

“It’s nice until the next afternoon hits- then I get delusional; it’s never not fun, but it [does] get weird.”

An ideal time to nap for Penner would be 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, but it disturbs his sleeping schedule at night.

So Penner does not nap, or he naps for roughly seven hours and will not sleep all night long until the next night. “[Napping] ruins [my sleeping pattern] a little more,” said Penner. “Even if it’s 20 minutes, I won’t sleep after that. Or, I will nap and 5 hours go by. But then I just have extra ‘Tom time.’”

Biology professor Dr. Rebecca Flietstra, who teaches neuroscience every other year, compares humans’ sleeping patterns to those of animals’. As she advises that most college students need about eight or nine hours of sleep each night, naps can be restorative if students are not meeting the eight or nine hours mark.

“There are actually a number of certain studies that do suggest that afternoon naps actually may be appropriate because the body appears like it wants to slow down,” said Flietstra. “And certainly when we look at other large mammals like us in the wild they take afternoon naps. So there are other sleep sort of things that can work as well.”

While it is possible to make up some missed sleep, those missed hours hurt the body in the long run. If one hour of sleep was missed, napping or sleeping an extra hour the next day can be okay. But if four hours of sleep were missed on a daily basis- that sleep can never be made up.

Senior William Alvarado worked 240 hours for just one class: Com 425 Television Workshop. Knowingly, he only needed to work 80 hours to earn an A in the class.

“Over [one] weekend, I got a total of eight hours of sleep. That Monday night, I slept for 12 hours,” Alvarado said.

“If you’re sleeping so much on the weekend trying to catch up, your body is not fully recovering; it is not a good thing. I know that disappoints a lot of students,” Flietstra said.

“Lack of sleep is seen as a stress on your body. We release a stress hormone each night if you have a regular sleep cycle called cortisol, [which is] the main stress hormone of the body, and if you’re having a regular sleep cycle about an hour or so before you get up, cortisol is released to prepare yourself for the most stressful thing that happens in your day, which is actually getting out of bed because it’s a huge change for the body to go from sleeping, repairing, growing, to being active; everything changes. So cortisol is a good hormone. Except if you’re sleep deprived, you start releasing levels of higher levels of cortisol all the time.”

Since cortisol acts as a stress hormone and is released when people sleep, this hormone can be damaging if sleep is deprived. Sleep deprivation is just one way people can become diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and other diseases. Neurons of the hippocampus, a part of the brain regarding memory, can also be harmed by these cortisol releasements when people are not sleeping, said Flietstra.

Psychology professor Dr. Daniel Jenkins said dreams produced from deep sleep, known as the rapid eye movement cycle (REM), invites the unconscious to deal with personal issues; thoughts in the back of people’s minds come out in dreams.

“Dreaming in the REM stage is particularly important; it’s when we process our memories. Often times, you’ll see that some of the conflicts or issues that a person has will come out in themes in the dreams,” said Jenkins. “People spend a third of their life in bed and maybe a third of their time dreaming while they’re in bed. And it’s a whole world that were kind of oblivious to. Sigmund Freud said ‘dreams are the royal road to the unconscious;’ they kind of give you a glimpse as to what is really going on ‘behind the scenes.’”

Sleep deprivation has reached its highest point because of today’s ever-changing technology. Most people look at their phone, laptop or television screens before going to sleep. But that bright light produced from all of these screens keeps the brain alert and tricks the mind into thinking it is still daytime.

Penner said that he’s not drinking any caffeine or eating much sugar. As doctors have tried prescribing him every medicine, both over and behind the counter, nothing has worked for Penner. Melatonin is a natural hormone derived from plants and animals that the body naturally has, which helps people fall asleep; Penner said that not even this helped his sleeping pattern.

“Electronics are a lot of times linked to not sleeping- but not always. I think the majority of people it would be, and to me it definitely hurts me if I do that,” said Penner. “Typically I do look at my phone or a bright computer screen. I try not to, but sometimes I kind of have to when I have nothing else to do- while the rest of the world is sleeping.”

“Part of your brain will put out a sleep hormone that helps you fall sleep that will be restricted when you’re staring at a bright light, like a phone screen. So having technology makes us stay up later and makes our sleep more dysfunctional,” said Jenkins.

Different from the typical college student who chooses to stay up all night to finish a term paper or of that sort, students like Penner have a medical condition that perhaps does not receive much attention and is easily misunderstood.

“The American school system actually does not appreciate it as a problem. So I just get ‘slacker.’ I lose credit percentages if I miss enough 8:00 am classes,” said Penner.

“But that basic need is there,” said Flietstra. “What we find is that people who get less than 6 hours of sleep on a regular basis experience] DNA… body changes; you have different gene expression [and] different proteins being produced in your body. So as college students, you really should be interested in getting that sleep.”

About the author

Jayme O'Hanlon

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