College students are among the most sleep deprived Americans. Some students view being sleep deprived as a point of personal pride: all those sleepless nights must mean they are just working that much harder, right? Perhaps, but sleep researchers have discovered that sleepless nights come at a high cost. In the short term, sleep deprivation leads to decreased concentration and memory, decreased alertness, increased confusion and fatigue, and lower overall cognitive performance (Pilcher and Walters, 1997). A recent study found that sleepless nights can even bring down your grades. The study reports that college students who experienced 24 hours without sleep once or more during their college careers had lower GPAs than students who had not (Thatcher, 2008). In the long term, sleep deprivation is related to higher risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health issues, memory and attention deficits, and shorter overall life span (National Sleep Foundation, 2009).
Our bodies need sleep! Sleep helps to consolidate memories and learning and improves mood and energy level. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours per night. While this can be a challenging number for many college students to meet, there are things you can do to reduce the harm of sleep deprivation and help your body experience the benefits of sleep.
A few good tips for reducing the harm of sleep deprivation:
- Work around your sleepless night. If you are pulling an all-nighter clear your schedule as much as possible and go to bed early the next night. This will help minimize the impact of 24 hours without sleep on your sleep-wake cycle.
- Deep sleep is crucial for our brains and bodies. If you can't sleep much, try to at least sleep enough to enter into deep sleep. Deep sleep occurs during the middle portion of the body's four hour sleep cycle, so try to sleep for at least 4 hours.
- Your sleep enviornment matters. A dark, cool, quiet sleeping environment is your best bet for good sleep. Ear plugs, white noise machines and sleep masks can help you create a healtheir sleep environment even in a dorm room.
- Naps are powerful! A 20-30 minute "power nap" can help reduce the impact of sleep deprivation. Napping in the late morning or early afternoon is best.
- Take it easy on the caffeine. Caffeine has a half-life of 3 to 7 hours in the body. Avoid caffeine, heavy meals, smoking and alcohol for several hours before bed so you can fall asleep when you're ready.
National Sleep Foundation. How much sleep do we really need?
January 8, 2009.
Plicher, J. J. and Walters, A. S. How sleep deprivation affects psychological
variables related to college students' cognitive performance. Journal of
American College Health. 1997; 46:121-127.
Thatcher, PV. University students and the "all-nighter": correlates and
patterns of students' engagement in a single night of total sleep
deprivation. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2008. 6:16-31.
Seven Strategies for Successful Sleep
1. Establish a regular sleep schedule.
- Try to go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each day.
2. Make your bedroom as comfortable as possible.
- Keep the temperature in your room comfortable and even a little cool when you sleep.
- Keep your bedroom quiet OR wear ear plugs.
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible; consider using an eye mask if it is not possible to darken your room.
3. Respect your bed.
- Use your bed for sleep and sexual activity only.
- Avoid studying, watching TV or using your laptop in bed.
4. Allow your body time to transition to sleep.
- Try to stop doing schoolwork or other mentally strenuous activity at least 20 minutes before you go to sleep.
- Try a relaxation or deep breathing exercise before trying to sleep.
5. Getting physical activity during the day will help you sleep at night.
- Regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality.
- Practicing a wellness activity, such as meditation, yoga or tai chi has been shown to improve sleep quality.
6. Reduce your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening.
- Caffeine has a half-life of 3 to 7 hours in the body.
- Eating a heavy meal, smoking cigarettes and/or consuming alcohol also negatively impacts sleep quality. Try to avoid these in the hours prior to bedtime.
7. If you have difficulty falling asleep at night try:
- Altering your sleep environment in the ways described above. Soft, relaxing music can also help promote relaxation and bring on sleep.
- Making list of anything that has you worried or preoccupied, especially things from your next day's "to do list."
- If an hour passes and you still cannot fall asleep, get up and do a relaxing, non-stimulating activity (for example, read a boring book, have a cup of hot tea, or knit)