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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

Sleep too much?

Lindsay Updegrove

As college students, we often complain that we have not gotten enough sleep on any given night. We drink copious amounts of caffeine in order to stay awake and finish that paper. Many times, we compensate for a lack of sleep at night by taking naps after (and sometimes during) our classes. This behavior might be recognized as "normal" by many teenagers and young people. However, many college-aged people suffer from sleep disorders. The most commonly recognized among these is insomnia, or the inability to obtain an adequate amount of sleep. But often overlooked and potentially harmful is hypersomnia. Although we rarely identify it as a negative condition, many of us actually get too much sleep.

Hypersomnia is defined as excessive daytime sleepiness and/or nighttime sleep. Humans sleep for an average of eight hours a night. Those with hypersomnia may find themselves sleeping for over ten hours at a time. (2) The most common symptoms are napping at inappropriate times, difficulty waking up, anxiety, irritability, restlessness and fatigue. Some more serious symptoms may include hallucination, loss of appetite, memory loss, or the inability to hear, see, taste, or smell things accurately. The disorder can have a profound effect on one's ability to cope in social situations. (1) There is a range of possible causes for the condition, but the primary cause is described as abnormalities that occur during sleep or abnormalities of specific sleep functions. (2)

Those with hypersomnia are generally diagnosed in one of four categories by a polysomnogram, which monitors a patient during one night of rest. (2)

Post-traumatic Hypersomnia is caused by trauma to the central nervous system, such as a head injury or a traumatic accident. This kind of hypersomnia may last for a span of a few days or an entire lifetime following such an incident.

Recurrent Hypersomnia consists of episodic periods of extended sleep followed by periods of normal sleep. The length of these episodes varies. Recurrent hypersomnia is caused by dysfunction of the hypothalamus.

Idiopathic Hypersomnia has no known cause and is the diagnosis most closely associated with the sleep disorder narcolepsy.

Normal Hypersomnia is seen in people who are commonly referred to as "long sleepers," those who require more than ten hours of sleep per night as a result of genetic predisposition. (2)

Hypersomnia shares some common symptoms with other sleep disorders: narcolepsy and sleep apnea. Narcolepsy consists of episodic "sleep attacks" during the daytime regardless of one's nighttime sleep. It resembles hypersomnia in the respect that many experience onset during teenage and young adult years. Sleep apnea is a condition which causes intermittent shortness of breath during sleep. It affects people of all ages but bears a resemblance to hypersomnia in that it is caused by an abnormality of respiratory function during sleep. Like normal hypersomnia, it also tends to run in families. (1)

A variety of lifestyle conditions may add to the habit of sleeping excessively. Hypersomnia may be a symptom of some medications or withdrawal. Alcohol and drug abuse, including caffeine, may play a part in extending sleep. (1) It is estimated that approximately five percent of the population can be diagnosed with some form of hypersomnia. However, the condition is greatly underreported because so many who have it do not realize that their excessive sleeping or napping behavior is abnormal. What is more, many do not realize what detrimental implications getting too much sleep can have for one's life. Primarily, hypersomnia seriously interferes with a normal schedule. One might miss large amounts of work, school, or other important activities. Secondly, many of the side effects of hypersomnia such as decreased concentration, anxiety, and memory loss all contribute to a diminished work or academic performance. (2) Treatments for those diagnosed for hypersomnia may include the prescription of stimulant or antidepressant medications. Also, it is advised to maintain a regular bedtime/waking time, and to avoid intake of alcohol and caffeine.

Doctors say that college students have about twice as many sleeping disorders as the total adult population. (4) It is not difficult to see how teenagers and young adults could become easy targets of hypersomnia. It seems that students often find that their academic and social schedules make it impossible to maintain a regular sleeping schedule. The large quantities of caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs that many students regard as being "normal" can seriously interfere with sleeping patterns. In addition, the amount of pressure many students find themselves in at college could seem to contribute to anxiety and depression: both mental states which have profound impacts on sleep.

It is interesting that in the discourse of hypersomnia and other sleeping disorders we often discuss what "normal" and "abnormal" sleeping behaviors are. When do we regard snoring to be a sign of a sleeping disorder? Where can we draw the line and say that someone is getting too much sleep, when everyone's' bodies are different and require different amounts? We can point out specific things that people do in their sleep that might be considered alert signs: screaming, acting out dreams, convulsions and jerks. (3) However, most people experience all of these symptoms from time to time, so it is difficult to say where normal sleeping behavior ends and a disorder begins. It seems that perhaps we could say that one has a disorder when his or her sleep begins to interfere with everyday waking life.

The importance of getting enough sleep is often emphasized. However, details on how to maintain a healthy sleeping routine are rarely imparted to teenagers and young adults. Colleges should make sure to advise students to not only get enough sleep but to try and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Sleeping through class might seem like something everyone does from time to time. It is when sleeping too much becomes a habit that such behavior can become a lifelong concern.

World Wide Web Sources

1) National Institute of Neurological disorders and Stroke Homepage.,, Information about sleep disorders as related to neurology.

2) Talk About Sleep: Idiopathic Hypersomnia, An informational website about sleeping disorders including a forum.

3) Bringing Secrets of the Night to the Light of Day, Idiopathic Hypersomnia , Written by a doctor as a means of helping to identify abnormal sleeping behavior.

4) The Johns Hopkins Newsletter, science page, an article from Johns Hopkins University about college students and sleep disorders.

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