Thrive on Campus//

13 Reasons Why (You Need Sleep)

The mental, physical, and emotional consequences of losing sleep.

Sydney Herron / Unsplash
Sydney Herron / Unsplash

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

It was a crisp autumn day. Duck was waiting for his friend Penguin at a local coffeeshop. He checked his watch — 1:33 p.m. Penguin was late. Duck decided to treat himself to a venti soy mocha frappuccino with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. He had just taken his first sip when Penguin arrived, flustered.

“Duck, it’s so good to see you, I’m sorry I’m late! Can I get you something to drink? Oh wait, I see you’ve gotten one already…Umm, do you know how much caffeine is in that? Have you been getting enough sleep?”

Duck replied, “Why would I do that? Sleep is for the weak.”

Penguin hesitated. “I don’t want to pick a fight, but not getting enough sleep is actually really bad for you.”

Unconvinced, Duck challenged him. “Prove it!”

Penguin cleared his throat importantly. “First of all, when you get a good night’s sleep, you’re better at remembering facts and can gain insights into unsolved problems.”

“There are a lot of things I’d like to forget,” said Duck darkly. “And gaining insights through sleep sounds like cheating – I believe in hard work and no shortcuts, thank you!” He stuck his beak snottily up in the air.

“But Duck,” Penguin persisted, “Did you know that your procedural memory is also improved by sleep? It boosts your visual and motor skills. Don’t you want to become better at mastering that fancy dive move you’ve been working on? I bet sleeping on it would help.”

Duck sighed, “While I appreciate your concern, I’ve been learning to appreciate who I am instead of worrying about who I could become. I am happy enough floating around without needing to be the best diver in the lake.”

“But Duck, even if you don’t want to work on your diving skills, what about staying healthy? When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to catch a cold, and your immune system can’t function as well.”

Duck perked up. “That’s fine by me. I’ve stocked up a couple weeks of PTO and this would be a good reason to use it.”

Losing patience, Penguin said, “Lack of sleep also weakens your body’s ability to make antibodies and fight off serious diseases. Do you want your vaccines to go to waste?”

“I’m not a huge believer in vaccines to be honest. In fact, I’ve never had one because I’ve heard… but never mind.”

Penguin persisted. “Duck, you’re impossible! Maybe this stat will convince you. Research on sick rabbits shows that those who got a full night’s sleep recovered. But guess what happened to those in the sleep-deprived group: they died! Do you want this to happen to you?”

Duck sipped his frappuccino nonchalantly. “My dear friend, I appreciate your concern but this experiment simply does not apply to me since I am not a rabbit.”

“Okay Duck, you’re right. You’re not a rabbit. But regardless, if you don’t sleep for multiple consecutive days, you lose the ability to thermoregulate, and die of catastrophic immune failure. Your liver fails, your hair falls out, and you lose weight.”

“My dear Penguin, let me counter by saying that I have no hair, so this is not an issue for me. And also, losing weight you say? I’ve been trying to lose a few pounds, and may try this.”

Penguin continued, “If your goal is to look good, I wouldn’t skimp on sleep because when compared to a group that got eight hours of sleep, people who slept less that that were rated as less attractive.”

Duck sniffed, “Penguin, it sounds like you care a lot about how others view you. Did you know that this can hurt your self-esteem and worsen your mental health?”

Penguin countered, “If you’re concerned with mental health, you should know that poor sleep in early life predicts risk for later mental health conditions.”

“How depressing,” said Duck sarcastically.

Penguin persisted, “Did you also know that lack of sleep is labeled as a carcinogen? And if you already have cancer, lack of sleep speeds up the growth of the cancer cells. You can’t possibly be fine with that.”

“Did you know that the plastic floating in my pond is also hazardous to my health? The world is a dangerous place in general, my friend,” Duck said magnanimously. “Try not to stress — that’s also bad for your health. Oh, and speaking of health, it’s time for me to eat lunch. I’m hungry.”  

“Speaking of hunger,” persisted Penguin, “Sleep messes with your appetite in some pretty bad ways. It lowers your levels of leptin and increases ghrelin, which basically means you feel hungrier than normal. You’ll end up eating more than usual, and choosing carb-heavy foods. Now do you really want that?”

Duck rolled his eyes. “If someone throws cake at me I’ll eat it whether I’m tired or not. And excuse me, did you just call me fat?”

Penguin shook his head and declared, “No I didn’t! But I also want you to know that lack of sleep also impacts your metabolism, reducing your ability to remove glucose from the bloodstream. This can be toxic.”

Duck sighed, “On the subject of toxicity, this conversation is dragging me down. I was in a great mood earlier but I’m feeling quite upset now.”

Penguin nodded wisely. “Ahh yes, you’re also prone to mood swings and emotional instability when you’re sleep deprived. Your amygdala becomes hyperreactive and you’re unable to regulate emotions as well.”

Duck lost his cool. “I don’t want to hear any more of this! I’m going home.” And he stomped off in a huff.  

The next day, Duck received a phone call from Penguin. “Hi Duck, how are you? I’m sorry for how we left things yesterday.”

Duck responded cheerily, “Good morning Penguin! Don’t even worry about it. I went to bed angry but woke up feeling great this morning.”

Penguin grinned. “I can explain that too. During REM sleep, your memories are processed in such a way that the emotions are stripped from them while the information — the core memory without the intense emotional aura — remains. But that is only one of the many benefits of sleep. Let me tell you more!”

Duck hung up the phone.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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