Have you ever been so tired that you have fallen asleep while doing homework, during class or even sitting straight up in a chair? Many post-secondary students who struggle to obtain a full night of sleep have endured that feeling. Students live in a culture that promotes reduced amounts of sleep due to the overwhelming burden of academic work and stresses of succeeding. Sleep deprivation can have an immense impact not only on students’ education but on student’s physical and mental health.
There are many factors that contribute to sleep deprivation like academic stress, social patterns and technology.
The effects of sleep deprivation were first described scientifically in 1896 by George Thomas White Patrick and J. Allen Gilbert, students at the University of Iowa. Their findings are still true to this day and have been replicated in hundreds of experiments. They found subjects with sleep deprivation had a longer reaction time, attention was minimal and there was a loss of motivation.
An expert panel assembled by the U.S. National Sleep Foundation recommended that adults aged 18 to 64 should have from seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Studies from Statistics Canada have shown that seven out of 10 college students say they get less than the recommended amount of sleep each evening.
Danielle McBride, a Global Studies student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, says that lack of sleep has a huge effect on her day-to-day life.
“I suffer from insomnia, and I have a really hard time falling asleep at night. When I can’t sleep I end up staring at my wall for hours on end and it feels like I’m watching paint dry. ”
Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and is the most commonly reported sleep disorder in post-secondary students. According to a 2015 study from the American College Health Association, over 40 per cent of Ontario post-secondary students reported that their sleep habits are problematic.
“On a good night I get five or six hours of sleep,” said McBride. “I find that it is a lot harder to fall asleep knowing I have a test or an assignment the next day. Being stressed about school is nothing new to me, but I do believe it does contribute a significant amount to my sleep habits.”
Sleep deprivation and inconsistent sleep schedules have many consequences, some of which negatively impact learning, memory and performance. McBride also expressed how her insomnia plays a role in how she performs academically.
“Since my program is both a mixture of test and assignment based, keeping up can sometimes be a challenge. I find that it is very hard to focus or retain any sort of information when you haven’t had enough sleep,” she said. “Your body goes into a state of fatigue and it feels like everything is moving so fast around you, your body is incapable of keeping up.”
Many students are sleep deprived because they stay up late but then have to wake up for early classes.
Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that runs in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness in regular intervals. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls the circadian rhythm and when you haven’t had a full night sleep, the symptoms are more dominant.
“How the circadian rhythm changes with puberty are not well understood,” said Shelley Hershner, an assistant professor of neurology at Michigan Medicine’s Sleep Disorders Center. “The cumulative effect is that young adults feel more awake in the evening, have a difficult time falling asleep until later, and then have insufficient sleep during the school week.”
Social patterns are a huge factor in sleep deprivation. Students thrive on an active social life, even if it costs them valuable sleep time. Many go out to party or hangout starting around 10 p.m. to midnight, and then don’t go to bed until three or four in the morning.
Behaviours and leisures that students engage in also a play a key role in why most suffer from lack of sleep.
According to the United States National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately four out of five college students drink alcohol, which can result in frequent waking, changes to the sleep stages and less amount of REM sleep.
“Alcohol shortens sleep latency,” said Hershner. “But it then promotes fragmented sleep in the later half of the night.”
In today’s technically advanced world, everything is at the touch of our fingertips. When it comes to social interaction and even school work, students are constantly in front of screens. Students have become accustomed to using technology for education as most classrooms have computers or other forms of technology. In post-secondary, classes and assignments are online for every student’s disposal, which often makes it harder to shut off devices every evening.
“One of my colleagues has said that Edison was the greatest enemy of sleep,” said Alistair W. MacLean, a professor at Queen’s University who is an expert in sleep disorders. “By inventing the light bulb he made it impossible to ignore the dark.”
There is evidence to show that technology does not help student’s sleep schedule. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the blue light (strongest and brightest wavelength) emitted from devices suppresses the production of melatonin – a hormone that controls your circadian rhythm. In 2012, Norway researchers looked at the sleep patterns and use of electronic devices during the day and night. In nearly 10,000 adolescents ages 16 to 19, they found that the use of technology worsened sleep across the board.
“The availability of 24-hour stimulation from TV, cellphones and tablets has an effect on sleep,” said MacLean. “There is evidence that certain wavelengths of light particularly disturb sleep so, when people use devices that emit that part of the spectrum and are used in bed, they inhibit sleep.”
A regular, uninterrupted sleep schedule is highly important for post-secondary students. By receiving adequate sleep every night, students are able to function at their best and complete their day-to-day tasks effortlessly. However, for most post-secondary students, balancing academics, a social life, jobs and everything else in between means a sleepless night is often on their agenda.