Most students will admit to falling asleep in class at least once during their time in college. Sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, and irregular sleep schedules are very prevalent among college students. So, why is lack of sleep such a problem?
Sleep deprivation is defined as inadequate sleep to support adequate daytime alertness, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
An astonishing 70 percent of college students do not get sufficient sleep, with half reporting feeling sleepy throughout the day. Compare that to 36 percent of adolescents and adults who report daytime sleepiness, it becomes clear how widespread the issue is across college campuses, the NIH has found.
“College forces us to alter our sleep schedules for the worst,” said Jesse Keating, a Lorain County Community College student majoring in communications. “If you want to graduate on time, you have to make that sacrifice. We are expected to have the utmost concentration in class, while we are literally walking around like zombies.”
Among college-aged students, sleep deprivation is one of the major causes of daytime sleepiness. Sleep deprivation can be caused by a number of things. Some are physiologic, while others are behavioral. The most problematic causation of sleep deprivation on college campuses tends to be behavioral. Behaviors such as pulling all-nighters and staying out late are prime examples.
“The problem I run into is that I’ll stay up however late it takes to do homework and write papers and then it eats into how much sleep I get,” said student Hallie Brown, an undecided major.
Of greater concern to college students is the impact sleep deprivation can have on grades. Students rank sleep only second to stress in factors that negatively impact academic performance. Sleepiness and irregular sleep schedules can have negative consequences on memory, learning, and performance.
“We don’t have margins. We give ourselves windows to sleep and by at the end of the day when we’re in that window, we’re too wired from school and work,” said Tammy Bosley, an instructor of communications at LCCC.
In studies performed by NIH, researchers have found that sleep actually strengthens memory. Lack of sleep affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain where new memories are formed. In fact, without proper sleep, the brain’s ability to learn new material can drop up to 40 percent. Grades can plummet as well, due to sleep deprivation, which can result in lower GPAs and compromised learning.
“Students with sleep deprivation can not focus in class,” said Barbara Schuckman, a psychology instructor at LCCC. “With sleep deprivation, attendance is sporadic. Students are not prepared and do poorly on tests.”
Sleep deprivation can have a major impact on health and wellness. A person’s central nervous system, immune system, and brain activity can become impaired due to lack of sleep.
In a study from the Mayo Clinic, evidence showed that an insufficient amount of sleep can weaken the immune system and increase the likelihood of bacterial intruders like the flu or common cold. The central nervous system suffers as well, with an overall drop in cognitive function.
Poor sleep habits (also referred to as sleep hygiene) can affect temperament and behavior as well. Irritability, mood swings, tension, depression, and confusion are all symptoms of poor sleep behaviors. Such bad behaviors can include consumption of alcohol and energy drinks, use of technology before bed, and even nicotine, which can act as a stimulant. Add in the fact that most college students have at least a part-time job, sleep often gets disregarded.
“This semester I’m taking 13 credit hours and also working 25 to 30 credit hours at my job,” Brown said. “I usually start my homework when I get home from work and stay up late to get it done.”
Some community college students have more than one job and a full schedule.
“What is backwards to me is that most of us who are in community college have jobs as well,” Keating stated. “I’m juggling two jobs while going to school full-time.”
Approximately four out five college students drink alcohol – and nearly 40 percent of those students report binge drinking four to five drinks in a row within the last 14 days, according to NIH. Further, 11.6 percent of students report using alcohol as a sleep aid. Alcohol shortens sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), but it also promotes fragmented sleep in the latter part of the night. If you’ve ever woken up every few hours after a night at the bar, this may explain why.
With over 11,000 Starbucks across the country, caffeine has become an easy, temporary substitute for sleep. Nearly 34 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds consume caffeine in the form of energy drinks or coffee, making it particularly popular with the millennial generation.
The equivalent of two to four cups of coffee can increase sleep latency roughly 6.3 to 12.1 minutes, on average. Used to reduce sleepiness and sustain wakefulness, the effects of caffeine can last 5.5 to 7.5 hours after consumption, according to NIH. This suggests that if consumed in the afternoon, caffeine could interfere with the ability to fall asleep.
“For my early classes, there isn’t an all-out absence – more tardiness. And they [students] walk in carrying a cup of coffee, so you know they had to take the time to do that for a reason,” Bosley said.
Poor sleep hygiene also encompasses the use of technology before bed. A 2011 Sleep in America Poll studied the use of technology by ‘Generation Y’ (adults aged 19 to 29 years-old). 67 percent use cell phones, 43 percent use music devices, 60 percent use computers, and 18 percent play video games prior to bed. Most young adults leave their cell phones on through the night, and only 33 percent turn their phone on silent or vibrate while they sleep. The light from a device like a cell phone or tablet blocks melatonin, which can help you fall asleep.
Many college students engage in these behavioral activities that increase stimulation and alertness before bed. To fight off daytime sleepiness, students reach for a cup of coffee, which then interferes with their ability to fall asleep at night. The problem becomes cyclical.
“It seems like I’m in a pattern for the first couple weeks into the semester and I feel like I function pretty well,” said Brown. “Then it catches up to me and I start to feel exhausted all the time, but classes keep moving along and I have to keep going to work so it’s just like I have to accept the fact that I’ll be in a constant state of sleep deprivation. But hey, I’ll sleep when I’m dead, right?”
In order for students to receive a restful night of sleep, developing healthy sleep regimen is necessary. These habits include regular sleep-wake schedules, a quiet sleep environment, avoiding caffeine after lunch, and reducing thought-stimulating activities before bed.
“Routines help,” said Schuckman, “And exercise. It improves your decision-making, mood and eating habits.”
Maintaining a consistent schedule is as equally important as sleep itself.
“Establish a schedule,” Bosley said, “Turn off the technology and try to shut off the ‘to do’ list.”