Get Your Zzz's On: The Science of Slumber

By Batli Joselevitz It’s that time of year again: sleepless nights hunched over your desk writing papers trying to meet deadlines, registering for spring classes, trying to catch up with friends you haven’t seen all semester, applying for internships. Students with the “so much to do so little time” perspective fall into the myth that sleep is for the weak. Is it really worth an all-nighter to finish that project you should have completed two days ago? The answer is no — a variety of studies have shown lack of sleep can affect a student’s academic performance by a whole letter grade.

“If you neglect sleep, it impacts your lifestyle negatively and there are consequences. My class of 50 said they sleep four to five hours regularly. That’s similar to starving yourself for sleep four years in college,” says Dr. Patricia Carter a professor in the school of nursing at UT, who teaches a course called “Sleep: Are We Getting Enough?”.

Carter suggests students should take naps of either 20- or 90-minute intervals during the day because it is doubtful they will get the suggested eight hours of sleep at night.  “If you don’t get the sleep you need, it will affect your mood and alertness the next day. You will be crabby, and your brain will not be able to consolidate any of the information from class because it hasn’t rested,” Carter says.

Students are encouraged to take power naps. It takes 20 minutes to go from a light sleep to deep sleep, as well as for caffeine to kick in. Carter recommends drinking coffee or tea right before this brief power nap and then your body will wake up on its own, feeling refreshed and alert. “A power nap lets you cognitively recharge without getting to that deep stage, so when you wake up, you actually feel refreshed,” she says.

When students don’t get enough sleep, things can get really weird:

“I stayed up 3 days in a row for finals, and on the third day, I convinced myself that the world was ending and that it was necessary to clean my entire apartment in preparation. I fell asleep halfway through cleaning the living room and woke up 14 hours later on the couch completely disoriented,” says Harrison Koiwai, a textiles and apparel major.

“I stayed up all night studying for a test and had probably been up a total of 27 hours and decided to make coffee before I went to my test. I poured it into my coffee thermos and put some creamer and sugar in it and didn't even realize until I was out of my apartment complex that I apparently forgot to put in a new filter with coffee grounds in it. So, my coffee was just straight up water with hazelnut creamer and sugar now. It was so disgusting,” says Chloe Skelly, an international relations major.

“One time when I was sleep deprived, I sat in the wrong class for the entire class period. I took a quiz and everything. Not once did it register with me that I was in the wrong class,” says Blue Adrian Alozie, a communication sciences & disorders major.

“I was up very late working on an essay, and I started writing part of my dream in my essay. When I woke up, there was a random sentence about free beers tonight in my paper,” says Zoe Patterson, a theatre and dance major.

“Sleep has two effects: it's reinvigorating and costs time,” says economics professor Daniel S. Hamermesh. "If time is valuable, your wage is higher and sleep is a more costly activity.” Sleep is an investment in improving your well being. Students tend to ignore that aspect too much and spend looking too much on the cost of sleep."

Sleeping enough is easier said than done, but like school work, if you work on it a little bit each day, it adds up. Here are a few ways you can invest on sleep:

-Set a bed time, and stick to it. Just because you’re a young adult in college shouldn’t make you stray away from this. Having a bed time gives you a personal deadline to finish school work promptly.

-Stop staring at a screen [i.e. iPhone, computer, TV] 45 minutes to an hour before you sleep. Read a textbook, or do some brainstorming for class if you still need to do some work. Your body and mind need to know that it is time to rest, so use this time to tune out the world.

-Don’t eat before you sleep. Your body needs time to digest its food, and it will keep you up for an hour or two otherwise.

-Don’t go to sleep hungry. Make sure you eat three hours before you sleep. If you’re hungry and trying to sleep, you will probably end up eating and then you will not be able to fall asleep right away.

-Take power naps of 20- or 90-minute intervals to feel refreshed throughout the day. This keeps your brain happy and porous, meaning more space to absorb more knowledge.

-Don’t drink coffee or caffeinated drinks after 3 p.m. because it takes 12 hours to get them out of your system, and you should be going to sleep well before 3 a.m.

“I like to go to bed at 10 to 10:30 on nights where I have to get up at early for my 8 a.m. class the next day," says English major Natalie Hen. "I like going to bed early because I am the kind of person who needs to sleep at least eight hours in order to function properly. I also feel so refreshed and well rested when I go to bed at 10.”

Make sleep a priority and you will see positive results in your life and academic performance. How can you turn down an offer like that? Invest in sleep.

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