Losing sleep: Lack of sleep can hurt grades, health, happiness

Illustrations by Monica Duwel/Washington University

There are reasons you will want to skip sleep your first year at college: That exam, that party, that all-night conversation with the floor mate.

And here are the reasons you should sleep anyway: your grades, your health and your happiness and well-being.

First Year Center’s Resource Expo

When: 5:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13
Where: Ursa’s Fireside

“Sleep is foundational for our cognitive and emotional health,” said Tim Bono, assistant dean for assessment and analytics and a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. For years, Bono has tracked the sleep patterns of first-year students. He has found that the average amount of sleep they get takes a serious dive within the first month or two of school. The consequences are huge.

“Everyone needs sleep but especially young people at this moment of transition when they are consolidating all sorts of new information and life lessons,” Bono said.  

Cheri LeBlanc, medical director of Student Health Services, agreed. Lack of sleep can exacerbate stress and anxiety and can diminish academic performance, she said. The problem is so big — according to the National College Health Assessment, some 61 percent of Washington University students report they are sleep-deprived three or more times a week — that Student Health Services is launching a new sleep campaign.

“If we help our students sleep better, we help them improve other aspects of their lives,” LeBlanc said. “It’s all connected.”

Here, Washington University experts track, week by week, what average first-year students experience their first semester.

5Habits.V2-01Week 1: Welcome to college!

Mother Nature, not to mention mom and dad, have long enforced a regular bedtime. And for good reason.

“Our body’s natural rhythm wants us to go to bed at 11 p.m. and wake at 7 a.m,” said Bono. “It’s like setting the reset button in our brains.”

5Habits.V2-02Week 2: The activities fair

In high school, you spent 35 hours a week in school. But now you are taking a 15-hour course load.

“Time becomes an illusion,” Bono said. “Students fill those extra hours with clubs and activities without taking into consideration that school is about to pick up in ways they are not expecting.”

5Habits.V2-03Week 4: The first exam

Ruh roh! Tomorrow is your first midterm, and you are a week behind in the reading.

“It’s all about time management,” Bono said. “In college, no one checks if you have done the reading, and it’s very easy to feel like you have a handle on it. Then midterms come, and students realize they have to catch up. Sleep becomes the first thing to go.”

5Habits.V2-04Week 6: And another?!

One exam down, another to go. Better stay up all night and cram.

Big mistake, LeBlanc said. Sleep helps the brain consolidate stored information so it can be recalled easily the next day.

“Sleep provides cognitive benefits as well as emotional ones,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve told students, ‘I know you think the longer you study, the better you will do. But research shows that you need restorative sleep to consolidate what you have learned.’”

5Habits.V2-05Week 9: You lookin’ at me?

You just yelled at the bunny statue on campus for looking at you funny. Maybe that’s a sign that your amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to negative emotions, needs a rest.

When the amygdala becomes too active, we start interpreting even harmless things as potential threats, and we also become more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as more upsetting,” Bono said. “The remedy for this is often a good night’s sleep — in particular, sleep that has a healthy dose of REM. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is associated with lower levels of amygdala activity, which essentially quells our fears and makes us less reactive.”

5Habits.V2-06Week: 15 Thanksgiving break!

At last, time to catch up on your sleep. Except that “catching up on sleep” isn’t really a thing.

“What matters isn’t just the amount of sleep students get but the consistency,” Bono said. “So getting four hours of sleep one night and 10 hours the next is not the same as getting seven hours both nights. An irregular sleep schedule can disrupt one’s circadian rhythm and contribute to the onset of other sleep difficulties such as insomnia.”

5Habits.V2-07Week 15: Exams already?

Sleep is fine for some people, but you simply do not have time. Bono hears that one a lot. That, and that sleep is for babies.

“When students tell me they are overwhelmed, the first question I ask them is, ‘How much sleep are you getting?’” Bono said. “To anyone who says they have too much to do to get a full night’s sleep, I would say that your brain has too much work to do for you not to get a full night’s sleep. The myth for so long was that sleep was a passive activity, a waste of time. Neuroscience shows that our brains are incredibly active during sleep doing all sorts of work. Those who sleep are ensuring they can do their work more effectively.”

5Habits.V2-08Second semester: Sleep on it

The good news, according to Bono’s research, is more sleep means more happiness. And students who establish good habits their first year maintain them throughout college.

Sophomore Alex Stillman is one of those students. He made a commitment to sleep seven to eight hours a night.

“FOMO — fear of missing out — can be a powerful thing,” Stillman said. “It’s normal to want to stay up late in the common room talking with your friends. But I knew if I didn’t get enough sleep, I would end up focusing more on trying to stay awake than learning.”

So Stillman made a call — he doesn’t watch television or Netflix and keeps his phone tucked in his backpack while he studies.

“I made sleep the priority and I’m happier for it,” Stillman said.

Student Health Service offered other ideas for improved sleep: establish a regular sleep routine; exercise regularly; avoid sleeping in on weekends; and try meditation or other relaxation techniques.

“The solution to a lack of sleep seems so simple — just sleep,” LeBlanc said. “But we know it’s hard to get to sleep when there are so many things demanding our attention. The key is to give your body that time it needs to relax and fall into a sleep. It’s not easy, but it is so important.”

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