It may seem that lack of sleep is just another part of college life. According to a University of Cincinnati study, only 24 percent of students said they got at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, even though the National Sleep Foundation says that young adults need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep on an average day.
This is not to say that college students should not stay up late. There are plenty of night owls who thrive best in the wee hours of the morning. According to sleep experts at Brown University, it’s natural for college-age students to stay up late, though it is important to note that this does not reduce the need for sleep. It is no surprise that lack of sleep has detrimental effects on students’ health, but to change the culture of college sleep–or rather, lack thereof–investigating the real effects of trimming an hour or two off your sleep schedule might be the key to changing students’ minds. At WashU, that’s exactly what several research faculty are trying to do.
Sleep loss can cause a bevy of symptoms. Drowsiness and inattentiveness are some of the most immediate, and both contribute to poor academic performance. Further, sleep quantity and quality affect basic neurological performance. A University of Ottawa study shows that students getting more REM sleep performed better on exams and could more efficiently execute language-learning tasks. Safety is a risk, too. A 1996 study reports that chronic sleep reduction weakens the immune response to infection.
But it is not just the present that students should be concerned about. Epigenetic research might give us new insight into even greater dangers of sleep deprivation. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of study, in which researchers look at how other molecules affect the genome without changing the DNA itself. Epigenetic changes are heritable, and affect every day of not only our lives but also our descendants’. For example, early life stress can lead to poor stress adaptation later in life. This poor stress adaptation lends itself to anxiety and other mood disorders, which can make daily life as well as integration into society more difficult.
Little research has been conducted on the epigenetics of sleep, but now Dr. Paul Shaw, a neurobiologist at WashU Medical School, poses an interesting thought experiment. He asks, what if stress due to lack of sleep in college induces epigenetic changes on the genome? This means that student may be setting future generations up for negative consequences. If Dr. Shaw’s thought experiment proves to be reality, the success students might gain from staying up another couple hours to study for an exam might ironically ultimately drives not only us, but also our descendants, in the opposite direction. So get those zzz’s now. Your children might thank you.