As kids, staying up late used to be a privilege; now, it’s just part of being an adult.
Sleep is often the first thing college students give up when trying to juggle the myriad of responsibilities and commitments. Even if you believe that “sleep is for the weak”, lack of sleep can actually make you weak, leading to cognitive, behavioral, and mental deficits.
The American Sleep Association defines sleep deprivation as the condition of “not obtaining adequate total sleep.” The definition of adequate and total sleep will vary from person to person; in fact, according to Healthy Sleep, an online resource from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, the healthy amount of sleep that any particular individual needs is dependent upon his or her age and genetics.
Genetics plays a role in determining both the amount of sleep an individual needs, and his or her preference for waking up early (“early bird”) or staying up late (“night owl”).
Age is the other major contributing factor determining how much sleep one needs as people generally require less sleep as they get older. For the vast majority of adults however, including most college students, a healthy night’s rest constitutes between 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep.
Among the seemingly endless list of responsibilities college students attempt to shoulder within a given 24-hour period, it comes as no surprise that college students are well-acquainted with the feeling of sleep deprivation. In fact, a 2014 medical study published in the journal, Nature of Science and Sleep, found that within their sample of college students, 50% experienced daytime drowsiness, 70.6% reported getting fewer than 8 hours of sleep, and 82% of students believed that sleep deprivation impacted their academic performance.
In addition to general feelings of daytime drowsiness and lethargy, there are also several other physical effects that accompany lack of sleep. The American Sleep Association found that in the short-term, depriving the body of sleep can inhibit its ability to process glucose as efficiently as it normally would with adequate rest. Furthermore, a 2005 study from the American Sleep Association analyzed data from over 1400 individuals and found that, “people who habitually slept for only a few hours were more prone to experience symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.”
Moreover, in general, individuals who participate in continuous muscular activity without sufficient rest are more likely to experience cramping, muscle fascia tears, and hernias. Extreme sleep deprivation can even mimic psychosis symptoms, which include distorted perceptions, hallucinations, and delusions.
Along with physical concerns, sleep deprivation can also lead to adverse cognitive effects. A 2017 study published in the journal, Sleep and Biological Rhythms, found that while one night of sleep deprivation had a minimal impact on a student’s cognitive abilities, habitual or frequent episodes of sleep deprivation can be linked to decreased cognitive abilities.
Specifically, tasks related to working memory and executive function may be affected, considering that both rely heavily on the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and salience network, which are areas that show reduced activation after an episode of sleep deprivation.
Another study conducted by the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in San Diego and the UCSD School of Medicine studied the brain activity of sleep-deprived individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The fMRI scans showed that sleep-deprived individuals had greater activity in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex when completing certain basic verbal learning tasks, when compared to non-sleep deprived individuals. These results imply that in sleep-deprived individuals, the area of the brain that is responsible for practical reasoning and working memory needs to work harder to accomplish the same task than in those who were well rested.
There are a number of steps you can take to avoid sleep deprivation and build better sleep habits. Develop and maintain a consistent bedtime and rising time. Build a better night-time routine by avoiding caffeine, alcohol or heavy meals before sleep, as these substances can interfere with the quality of your sleep. For some, listening to soothing music or reading a good book can help with unwinding at the end of the day.
If obtaining a full night’s sleep is truly difficult, try to take naps of 20-30 minutes throughout the day. According to the National Sleep Foundation, naps of this duration can help with “short term alertness”, and enables people to perform better without interfering with “nighttime sleep” or causing drowsiness or grogginess.