sleep deprivation in college students

Darien Perry
November 01, 2022

With exam season approaching on many college campuses, doctors recommend students keep to a consistent sleep schedule to prepare for their tests. Yet students often fall short of getting proper sleep throughout the school year, let alone during final exams.

Research shows more than half of college students get fewer than six hours of sleep per night during a semester. Around final exam week, it’s even less. A 2019 study conducted at Baylor University shows that fewer than 20% of the student population meet the seven-hour minimum benchmark for sleep, while under 10% get the optimal eight to nine hours, making students one of the most sleep-deprived demographics.

“Students should get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night,” says Valerie Cacho, M.D., an integrative sleep medicine physician at the Sleep Life Med clinic in Ewa Beach. She says many students don’t consider the impact that sleep deprivation has on the brain, such as reduced attention span and poor memory consolidation, which affect academic performance over time.

“In terms of mental health, sleep deprivation can cause emotional lability, which refers to rapid, strong changes in mood that can lead to increased risks of depression, anxiety, and suicide,” says Dr. Cacho. “In regard to long-term implications of poor sleep, you’ll see decreased performance, frequent headaches, higher blood pressure, and weight gain, which may lead to a greater risk of diabetes.”

And although it might be tempting to pull an all-nighter or two with final exams just around the corner, Dr. Cacho emphasizes the importance of prioritizing rest. “Our brain cleans out toxins that build up throughout the day. This is one reason why sleep is so much better for your brain and body than trying to pull all-nighters to cram in the last bits of info. Maintaining good sleeping habits will help you get better grades.”

Dr. Cacho has these tips for practicing healthier sleeping habits:

Schedule your rest time. The first step that students should take is setting aside a consistent time for rest.

Exercise your body and rest your mind. Physical exercise and meditation also promote better sleep quality and provide other health benefits. “Make sure you exercise on a regular basis, as this not only helps improve sleep quality but stress and mood as well,” says Dr. Cacho. “Cultivate a regular meditation practice. Your brain needs rest and meditation allows your brain to function more effectively and aids in attention and impulse control.”

Get more light in the morning, less before bed. Dr. Cacho adds that increasing exposure to light in the morning and avoiding screen time 60 minutes before the desired bed time is critical to managing a healthy circadian rhythm, an internal process that regulates sleep-wake cycles. “Establishing a cut-off time is crucial to creating good sleeping habits,” says Dr. Cacho. “I make sure to get enough sun exposure in the morning and aim to be off my computer by 9 p.m.

“No one is a perfect sleeper 100% of the time. Life will throw things at you, so do the best you can with what’s in your control. Your brain and body and even your grades will thank you.”

Darien Pomaikai Perry is a recent University of Michigan-Ann Arbor grad and has plans to attend graduate school.

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