Sweet Dreams: The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Story by Bhavna Sud | Artwork by Carolyn Duan

You stare at the teacher, mouth hanging open and eyes drooping. Time and time again your eyes drift closed, but you are jerked awake by the murmurs of fellow students around you.

Almost every Monta Vista student has found themselves in this situation at least once – struggling to stay awake in class due to the lack of sleep they had the night before. A survey of 65 MV students found that 69% of them had fallen asleep in class at least once, and 24% of these students found themselves doing this often.


A visual representation of the average sleep level in an MV classroom. Approximately 7 in 10 students have fallen asleep in class at least once, with 2 in 10 doing so regularly. (Visual by Bhavna Sud)


Michelle Minh Nguyên, a junior at Monta Vista, describes how she often suffers from a lack of sleep.

“I think that school has affected the amount of sleep I get since I’ve had to find times to catch up,” Nguyên said. “Ultimately, my sleep pattern has become a huge mess. I still function because I’m used to it. Would I say that this is healthy? Not really.”

Like Nguyên, many MV students find that the huge workload of school often keeps them awake at night. Freshman Anjali Thontakudi, who spends waking not only working on her MV homework but also running cross-country and track, explains how she experiences this problem. For her, she says that in addition to her extracurricular activities, the extra self-learning she must do outside of class adds to her workload and forces her to stay up later and lose sleep.

Especially with finals and end of the year projects, Thontakudi and many other Monta Vista students are forced to sacrifice precious hours of sleep. But as more and more students find themselves giving up another hour of sleep every day, the health risks quickly become more evident. Gary H. Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), writes that getting the proper amount of sleep plays a vital role in “mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.” While someone sleeps, their brain focuses on forming more mental pathways to hold new information. In addition, during sleep, their body starts to strengthen it’s heart and vessels, preventing heart disease and high blood pressure.

“It’s like sprinting. You sprint,” Nguyên said. “Then you rest because you’re tired and you need a break. Then you sprint again.”

A study by Jeffrey S. Durmer and David F. Dinges, titled “Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation”, found that when people experienced even temporary sleep deprivation, a “loss of temporal lobe activation” was observed in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that regulates the “anterior and posterior attention control area.” This corresponded to a difficulty in paying attention for the rest of the day.

Despite the difficulties  lack of sleep may cause, many students are motivated to sacrifice their sleep to allot more time to prepare for an exam. However, getting more sleep is actually more beneficial to performance on exams than studying through the night. UCLA psychiatry professor, Andrew J. Fuligni, explains that if more time is spent to study in place of sleep, a student is more likely to have academic difficulty the next day because their memory and ability to pay attention are decreased.

Michael Lordan, Pre-Calculus and Physics teacher at Monta Vista, sees how such late night cramming often ends up harming his students’ efforts to perform well on an exam.

“Often, in your sleep deprived fervor, you miss this critical point where you absolutely should go to sleep because you’re now doing more harm than good”, Lordan said. “Come the day of the test you can barely stay awake, let alone recall anything you worked so hard for the night before.”

The National Sleep Foundation indicates that the appropriate amount for sleep for teenagers is 8 to 10 hours. Unfortunately, many Monta Vista students are getting little more than half this number. Of a Facebook survey conducted of 65 MV students, only 24% of MV students report getting the recommended eight or more hours of sleep on school nights. The resulting students are limited in their capability to learn and to process information, because they are decreasing the amount that their brains can process.

In addition, as Lordan explains, a room of sleep-deprived students can greatly detract from classroom atmosphere.

“In losing sleep staying up late for a test, you can end up not only negatively impacting your performance on the test but also your performance in all of your other classes as well,” Lordan said. “A class full of sleepy students can be extra hard to stay focused in because so much of the energy and enthusiasm has been sapped dry.”

Yet this problem is not impossible to solve, and students are already looking to innovative solutions to get the proper amount of sleep. Nguyên, for example, describes her strategy to study early to save sleep during finals. For her De Anza classes, Nguyên explains how she reads over her materials and makes an active effort to sleep earlier as the finals approach, focusing on her sleep as a necessary part of her preparation.

Despite efforts like these, many Monta Vista students still find themselves coming to class with their eyes half-closed, due to sleeping late the previous night. Often, the idea of a good grade is used as motivation to prioritize work over sleep, despite the negative health effects this may have.

“If skipping a Youtube video means a little more sleep, I would say go for it,” Thontakudi said. “But also don’t overwork yourself: at the end of the day, an all-nighter probably won’t get you the grade you’re hoping for, but a little bit of sleep can go a long way.”
Thontakudi’s advice applies especially to the MV community, where sleep is often sacrificed for the thought of a better grade. But, as many students have seen, such dreams are often hard to reach.