Arianna Huffington’s Fight Against Sleep Deprivation

Arianna Huffington at The Time 100 Gala. CREDIT: STAR MAX/IPX
Arianna Huffington at The Time 100 Gala. CREDIT: STAR MAX/IPX

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most people that college students aren’t getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is part of campus culture, and falling asleep while cramming for an exam is supposed to be just another night in the life of a college student.

Fifty percent of college students report daytime sleepiness, and 70 percent of college students report having an insufficient amount of sleep, according to 2014 paper by University of Michigan researchers. Instead of giving students more time to get things done, this lack of sleep puts students at increased risk of academic failure and compromised learning. Moderate sleep deprivation has also been shown to be equivalent to being intoxicated by alcohol. After 17 to 19 hours without sleep, performance on tests was equivalent or worse than if a student had a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent, with response speeds being 50 percent slower than normal for some tests.

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That’s why Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, decided to tour college campuses across the country to promote her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.

Huffington knows the dangers of sleep deprivation from firsthand experience. In 2007, back when she says she was regularly working 18-hour days, she passed out and fell in her home. When she came to, she was laying in a pool of blood and had a broken cheekbone. The doctor told her exhaustion was the reason for her fall. Since then, she’s been working to change her lifestyle and convince others to do the same.

Huffington spoke with ThinkProgress about how campus culture and economic inequality contribute to the prevalence of sleep deprivation among college students specifically.

ThinkProgress: In the book, you mention how our smartphones and constant connection to work and school cause anxiety that prevents us from sleeping well. How much is technology a factor in our inability to fall asleep?

Arianna Huffington: It’s pretty conclusive that being hyper-connected to work all the time, and smartphones makes it much more difficult to disconnect, makes it more difficult to go to sleep. Even if we’re exhausted and we fall asleep, our brain will wake us up in the middle of the night, so it’s about navigating our relationship with technology but I think we also need to change our minds about the importance of sleep. Because even though we’re going through a cultural shift at the moment, sleep at many workplaces is devalued and even scorned and sleep deprivation is still being worn like a badge of honor. So we first need a cultural shift to make it much easier for people to make the changes that are necessary for people to get good sleep that dramatically improves health, decision-making, our relationships, and our own happiness.

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TP: During these visits, does it seem like universities are taking this seriously as well as students?AH: Every school has scholarships and support but you know, up to 40 percent of low-income students who were accepted to college couldn’t make it to the first day of school in the fall, due to tuition sticker-shock, but here is what I believe. When we take care of ourselves and again, this is scientifically-based, we become more resilient when we’re fully recharged. So a lot of mental health issues like anxiety that get in the way of us taking risks and doing our work, and let me just address again, this is not an alternative to policy change. But in the meantime, how we act within the current environment depends a lot on our own resilience and sleep deprivation is very connected to lack of resilience, to anxiety, to depression, all these things that get in the way of achieving our goals as a college student.

TP: When it comes to colleges, is there something that a university president or professors can do to emphasize the importance of sleep? AH: I think the first step is bringing awareness of the new science, what is happening to the brain when we sleep, how it affects decision-making and leadership, and how it affects health. Also the reason we are doing this college tour is to raise awareness. You can see students who are beginning to change their relationship with sleep because students have a saying — grades, social life, sleep: Pick one. And sleep is the one that gets sacrificed.

TP: How much of the cultural tendency to brag about lack of sleep is gendered and centered on this macho idea that you can be tough enough to deal with lack of sleep?

AH: Absolutely, it’s machismo. I think it starts with men using it as a symbol of virility almost. But then a lot of women who think it’s how to get ahead in the workplace have adopted it. It seems primarily a machismo thing, like whose is bigger? And I think now when we have some new role models including Jeff Bezos and Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, and Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, who introduced this program, where Aetna employees can track their sleep and if they get seven hours or more they get $25 a night. Besides the financial reward, it’s a huge shift in terms of recognizing and prioritizing sleep. That message is coming from the top of the corporation, coming from the CEO. It’s shows the connection between sleep deprivation and the bottom line — how it affects both health care costs and productivity.

TP: What do you think can be done policy-wise to acknowledge the economic part of this, since some students are working part-time jobs and can’t make time for sleep?

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AH: I would say on the college level, it’s the college loan system, and many college students have to have a job and go into debt to make ends meet, and then of course there is the fact that we have the emergence of financial worry about repaying all of these heavy loans. The 2014 graduates had the highest student loan debt ever,* so that is another factor, that burden on students. Often, then on top of it, you have calamity of for-profit colleges, which has made it even harder, so as a country these are factors we have to address. So I think there are structural issues and policy issues, but while we are working to change policies around college loans and for-profit colleges, we need to change our relationship with technology and our prioritization of sleep so we don’t damage both our health and our grades, because cognitive performance is impaired when you’re sleep-deprived.

TP: Once people graduate, they’ll also be dealing with a culture of burnout in many workplaces. Do you think employers are beginning to see how sleep deprivation is bad for productivity when they see that the effects of being sleep deprived at work is similar to the effects of being intoxicated at work?AH: That is really a belief that we are working to accelerate. There is leadership happening, but like any transition, you have multiple factors co-existing. You have the behaviors of executives and professors congratulating students for working 24/7 and you also have an explosion of new scientific findings showing how detrimental this is, to our grades, to our career success at any level, and we also have athletes that college students revere in many instances who are ahead of us in terms of prioritizing sleep as a performance enhancer, such as LeBron James, for example.

TP: Has the discussion of students taking stimulants come up during the tour?AH: Yes, that’s a huge problem. Yes, I think with the addiction to Adderall and the addiction to energy drinks, we have a seen a bubbling up of emergency room visits and so I think we see a lot of these problems are magnified in order to basically counteract lack of sleep and get around sleeping.

TP: And then the body gives in eventually and people go to the hospital, similar to your fall a few years ago.AH: That is exactly what is happening and now we see you know a perfect storm of recognizing the dangers of sleep deprivation, in terms of executives collapsing on stage, and we see what’s happening in colleges with an increase in mental health problems, which is connected to sleep deprivation. I was at the Stanford Graduate School of Business last week and they were telling me about all the health problems they’re facing in terms of students getting meningitis and whooping cough, so we’re talking about the impact of sleep deprivation on our health and ultimately our productivity, because we are taken off the grid until we recover.

*Now 2015 is the most indebted class ever, according to an analysis by Edvisors.com. The percentage of students graduating with debt is about the same as last year, however.