It took a burst appendix for senior Caroline Pritchard to realize she needed sleep.
She powered through a broken hand, salivary gland problems, lingering illness, constant dehydration and plummeting grades. But in the hospital bed, after an appendectomy, Pritchard decided she needed to make a serious lifestyle change.
Before her appendix burst, Pritchard juggled both a full course load and frequent games and practices as a member of Miami University’s field hockey team. Because she was staying up later, she found she was taking too much medication for her ADHD, which caused her to feel dehydrated. To succeed on the field and in the classroom, she thought she needed to sacrifice sleep.
Dr. Susan Bantz, a full-time physician at Miami’s Student Health Services, says that pulling all-nighters can weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to illness.
“Your body is constantly fighting infection,” Bantz said. “If your immune system is weak because of increased stress and lack of sleep, your body might be too inadequate to fight off an infection, like one in your appendix.”
Pritchard wasn’t the only one on her team losing strength because of a hectic schedule.
“I saw a lot of my friends and other athletes struggling with trying to do everything. On my team, a girl had torn her ACL. During her recovery, she went to practice after four hours of sleep and tore her ACL again.”
Pritchard’s case is extreme, yet many students struggle with the same issues.
“It’s a vicious cycle that a lot of people fall into,” Pritchard said.
Bantz sees notable similarities in cases where students aren’t getting enough sleep.
“One situation I see a lot is someone strictly running on caffeine and barely sleeping for days to cram for an exam, and are so dizzy and weak when they come to see me that they can barely stand up,” Bantz said. “The other common situation I see is someone getting really sick after their test is over.”
Some students joke about their lack of sleep in college, while others may see their extreme sleep deprivation as an opportunity for bragging rights. However, healthcare professionals agree that the consequences of inadequate sleep are decidedly unfunny.
“Your brain doesn’t function at the optimal level in order to learn. You can barely pay attention and have problems remembering important information,” Bantz said. “You’re also more prone to make poor decisions and have a depressed mood.”
According to the American College Health Association, college students should strive for at least seven hours of sleep a night. However, many college students struggle to reach this.
The University of Georgia Health Center says sleep deprivation causes colds and flu, more stress and increased weight gain. Students who don’t sleep enough are also more likely to have a lower GPA, get in automobile accidents due to fatigue and have decreased athletic performance.
“I have anxiety and ADHD which caused me to stay up late, but when I didn’t get sleep, I would misread texts and freak out about little things,” Pritchard said. “I would be so anxious and tired that I couldn’t even get work done.”
Elise Clerkin, an assistant professor in psychology at Miami who specializes in mental health issues, says there are alternatives to this lifestyle.
“There is another option…the choice doesn’t need to be between cramming, having a social life, and not getting sleep,” Clerkin said. “Instead, the choice should be balance. For the student who finds themselves in the position of staying up all night, I would question what got them to that point, if they can make shifts in their schedule so they aren’t tipping so far out of balance and need to cram.”
Though it took Pritchard a severe medical crisis to change her behavior, she urges other students to seek help before they reach that point.
She recommends that people take advantage of resources such as Miami’s Rinella Learning Center and professors’ office hours, as well as asking friends for guidance. The Rinella Learning Center connects students with tutors and frequently holds time management workshops and stress workshops to help students manage their hectic schedules.
“When I started using my resources and doing everything I could to avoid staying up late, my grades got better,” Pritchard said.
The field hockey player and psychology major is graduating in just a few weeks. She knows the stress of finals is looming large on Miami’s campus, but she is glad she can use her previous mistakes to help her peers .
“You individually are not enough,” she said. “If you want to do better than you need to ask people for help. There’s no shame in that.”