What Chronic Illness Taught Me About Sleep

Sick woman sleeping in bed under blanket
Sick woman sleeping in bed under blanket

People are often shocked when I tell them I've never pulled an all-nighter in college. They're more shocked when I tell them I average around seven hours of sleep a night.

Sadly, their reaction is usually a combination of surprise, slight disdain and jealousy veiled as judgment. A lot of this has to do with my field of study. As a journalism major at the University of Oregon, I am expected to not only follow the news, but also cover it. My classmates and I take reporting, multimedia and editing classes that require extensive work outside of class. We have to maintain a somewhat respectable GPA while writing for at least one campus publication and holding an internship.

My friends and I often joke that if there were a coffee kiosk in Allen Hall, the building that houses our School of Journalism and Communication, it would be the most successful shop on campus, especially if it was open 24/7. Spending an all-nighter working on a project in Allen Hall is not only a rite of passage, but also an expectation to be successful.

"People are often shocked when I tell them I've never pulled an all-nighter in college."

A lot of this has to do with how competitive the journalism industry is. In order to deal with the anxiety of having to start a career after college, many of us work what often feels like at least two full-time jobs, hoping that it will pay off after we get our diplomas. Mental and physical health don't matter if we are able to put that dream internship or job on our resumes.

In contrast, I've always had to care about my health and how much I sleep. I was a healthy, active child, but despite playing sports and eating nutritiously, I started gaining weight in middle school. I was tired all the time, my hair and skin were dry and I had no energy to do the things I loved. A thorough doctor diagnosed me with hypothyroidism, which meant that my thyroid, a gland in my neck, wasn't producing enough hormones. While the thyroid hormones don't do much themselves, they send signals to other systems in the body that affect metabolism, mental development and in children, the ability to go through puberty.

After starting to take synthetic thyroid hormones, I felt the changes almost immediately: I lost 20 pounds, started going through puberty and regained the energy and drive I had mysteriously lost. While I am able to manage the symptoms of this chronic disease, it still affects my life. I'm very short, just a little over 5 feet tall, because my growth was stunted. In addition, keeping my body healthy goes past taking a pill every day. I have to eat healthy, exercise and most importantly, get enough sleep.

"Mental and physical health don't matter if we are able to put that dream internship or job on our resumes. "

Once I started college, my normally stable hormone levels fluctuated up and down considerably. I couldn't pinpoint the exact reason because even small lifestyle changes impact my hormone levels and consequently my health. Moving into the dorms and changing my schedule and what I ate affected how I felt.

While it wasn't difficult to stick to nutritious meals and a solid night's sleep, I was jealous of my friends who seemed unfazed after getting three or four hours of sleep a night, for a whole week. I could barely go more than one night getting less than seven hours of sleep, and if that was followed by a day of sugary, fatty foods, I was screwed.

As I've progressed in school - I am currently a junior - prioritizing sleep has gotten harder. I am a music journalist and cover concerts as a writer and photographer. After an evening of music, I have to go home and write my story and edit my photos for an early morning deadline.

I know this is the life of a journalist, but it is hard to get myself to a 9 a.m. class the next day and somehow stay awake after working until 2 or 3 a.m. Because of my hypothyroidism, I am more aware of the impacts of bad life choices. And it's more than just the morning after a crazy Friday night. Staying up late doing homework or covering a show leaves me exhausted all day.

"Because of my hypothyroidism, I am more aware of the impacts of bad life choices."

To be honest, I often get mad at myself for this. I see my friends make it through a week of all-nighters, and somehow they are still functioning. I'm jealous of how they are able to be almost robots while I constantly experience the limitations of my body. Not getting sleep is something they brag about. The less sleep they get, the more dedicated they are. Sometimes, I feel my seven hours a night are a waste of time.

Recently, though, the discussion around sleep has opened up on my campus, partially thanks to the #SleepRevolution College Tour, which has provided an outlet for students to talk about their sleep habits openly. I was surprised to learn how many of my peers got at least seven hours of sleep a night. While the stereotype was that we were all bragging about who got less sleep, in reality, we all knew how important getting a good night's sleep was. We realized that it was hard to prioritize sleep with everything else that was going on, but still tried to do so. My own chronic illness makes me hyperaware of my health. Being able to discuss sleep openly has relieved much of my anxiety. I hope that other students can become more attuned to their bodies as well. I hope we all realize that success doesn't come from all-nighters, but from a good night's sleep.

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at abigail.williams@huffingtonpost.com. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.