Sleepless on the South Side

UChicago students need to prioritize sleep in order to lead balanced lives.

By Alexa Perlmutter

While I was waiting by my gate at the airport on my way home for Thanksgiving, I aimlessly scrolled through the Fitbit app on my phone, which syncs to the purple bracelet I’ve been wearing on my wrist for almost two years. In addition to tracking my steps and runs, the Fitbit also tracks my sleep by monitoring my heart rate. I was surprised and horrified to find that since I started school at UChicago in mid-September, only once was I asleep for more than eight hours in a night (eight hours and eight minutes, to be exact, and that was on daylight savings). Not only that, there had only been seven nights this quarter during which I slept for more than seven hours—and my friends tell me I go to bed early.

This was the first time I realized how unhealthy some of my habits have been this quarter—and it explains why it’s often hard to keep my eyes open and myself focused during my morning lectures.    

Yes, we need sleep, preferably eight hours—so says every doctor, ever. But, as college students, we’re trapped in that clichéd triangle: One corner is “grades,” another is “social life,” and the last is “sleep.” The tired trope is: Choose two and neglect the third. Even this triangle, though, is unrealistic—our lives are far more complicated polygons with a plethora of corners representing any number of things in addition to those: work, sports, extracurriculars, relationships, hobbies, free time. We are pushed and pulled in so many different directions—all of them away from our beds. And when we live in such close proximity to all of our friends, it’s always tempting to stay up for just five more minutes. 

An ultimatum like the triangle may shed light on this reality and provide a chuckle or two but is ultimately unhelpful. It’s impossible to pick and choose which aspects of our life we participate in, but it’s even more impossible to participate in all of them perfectly while still getting enough sleep each night. 

And what actually counts as enough sleep? If giraffes only need 1.9 hours of sleep in a day, for how long can I carry on with my routine? 

When humans don’t sleep enough, the proteins in our cells don’t fold properly and cannot retain their ideal 3D shape. When that happens, the different unfolded proteins can aggregate and form clumps in the cell—essentially clogging it and preventing it from functioning normally. More serious than normal tiredness, though, are the long-term effects of an irregular sleep schedule and circadian rhythm: a higher risk of diseases like cancer. According to the National Sleep Foundation, manipulating the sleep/wake cycles of rodents causes cancers to grow noticeably faster. 

But it’s a fact that sometimes I just can’t get into bed until very late (or very early).  Sometimes, I am in bed but I just can’t fall asleep because I’m thinking about God-knows-what: tomorrow’s quiz, the newest sexual assault allegations on the news, the meaning of life, my favorite Cathey dessert. 

This might just be the way it is; alongside—and in many ways connected to—the age-old class struggle, we have the time struggle: too much to do and never enough time to do it. I always wear my Fitbit, but I rarely ever look at my daily statistics. Scrolling through my Fitbit data was a painful exercise in disappointment—where did all of those hours go? 

Until I saw that data, I prided myself in getting a good night’s sleep almost every night. But alas, it isn’t so; feeling energized won’t stop the lack of sleep from catching up with me sometime soon. Next quarter, I plan on improving my sleep habits in a few different ways: I’ll set a gentle alarm sound that won’t jolt me awake in the mornings, take a few minutes to relax and wind down before bed so I’m not transitioning right from work, and maybe even find myself some nice white noise to lull me to sleep. 

But, most importantly, to those who lose track of time and find themselves up in the house lounge at 3 a.m., start keeping track of the hours you’ve slept; I know I plan on doing so more carefully next quarter. Even if our bodies allow us to physically keep this up, maybe seeing it written out on paper—or on an app—will scare us all into turning the lights out a little earlier. 

And, if nothing else, more sleep leads to better sex

Alexa Perlmutter is a first-year in the College.