Sleep: The Answer to Almost Every College Problem

Illustration by Caroline Cao

Illustration by Caroline Cao

It’s midnight and Olin Library is packed with students studying for their exams. Soon enough, midnight becomes 2:00 am, yet most students still study away. In fact, most of these students don’t return to their dorms until around three, which is often a mere seven hours before their first classes. By the time they get into bed and fall asleep, they are counting on six hours of sleep to propel them through another long day with exams. Sleep deprivation is the biggest problem college students face, and it is the heart of almost every other issue. This problem hits first-year students the hardest, which is why they struggle in so many ways. Although being tired may not seem like a major problem, it can lead to a multitude of other issues.

Many first-year students encounter the “Freshman 15,” or an increase in their weight since first arriving at school. While this is frequently attributed to a lifestyle change, it also has to do with the lack of sleep college students face. When students spend countless hours in the library at night, their appetites increase as cortisol levels increase (2). The body wants to increase serotonin levels when it gets tired, and “the easiest way to do that is by eating high-fat, high-carb foods that produce a neurochemical reaction“. So, rather than reaching for an apple, one may reach for a donut or a candy bar. Not only is this due to the body’s goal to increase serotonin levels, but it also results from changes in hormone production associated with a lack of sleep. Ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite, is secreted much more frequently, while leptin production, which signals satiety, declines (2). A study found that “sleep-deprived participants ate an average of 300 more calories per day“, because of this change in hormone production. Also, it is important to consider an evolutionary perspective involving cavemen ancestors. If they were up for an extended period of time, it was probably because they were in danger, so their bodies entered survival mode. In turn, this slows metabolism as bodies try to maintain resources and obtain fuel (2). Following this reasoning, if students went to bed earlier, the “Freshman 15” would likely be more of a myth than a reality.

Sleep deprivation has a great impact on almost all areas of life. According to an article in the Sleep Health Journal, lack of sleep has “an association with slowed reaction time, impaired immune function, increased risk of infection, even compromised memory, and learning“. As a college student, having an impaired immune system is not ideal, as not only do germs spread easily, but it makes doing well in school quite challenging. The decline in memory and learning experienced when sleep deprived is due to dampened brain cell activity. According to Mental Health America, when an individual is sleep deprived, neurons send signals at slower speeds, thus causing “reduced decision-making skills, reaction times, and reasoning abilities”. This reduction in reasoning abilities harms students in the classroom, thus leading to a lower GPA. Although obtaining good grades is what most college students strive toward, when they are getting on average four to five hours of sleep per weeknight that is an impossible task (3). If students got more sleep, not only would their performance in school increase, but they would feel better mentally as well.

Starting college is a major adjustment for students as they typically are not used to living on their own and completing tasks for themselves, which is why anxiety and depression are so prevalent among first-year students. However, what students fail to realize is that if they were to get more sleep, they would be much happier and much less anxious. Fifty to 80% of individuals who seek mental health care complain of sleep deprivation or issues (1). When an individual does not get much sleep or has disrupted sleep, the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep decreases. The disruption in REM sleep also disrupts neurotransmitters and stress hormones, thereby exacerbating mental health symptoms (1). A decrease in rest leads to an increase in anxiety, which is why getting enough sleep is vital, especially for college students who have a lot to complete each day. Furthermore, it was found that sleep deprivation typically develops prior to depression, which is another reason why getting enough sleep is crucial to being successful in college.

Ending the cycle of sleep deprivation may seem like a daunting task, but it is actually relatively easy. The first step is to determine a time seven and a half hours prior to when one needs to wake up and considering that to be bedtime (2). If one continues to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, his or her body clock will be set, thus causing sleepiness to occur at the same time each night. The circadian rhythm, or the body’s internal 24-hour clock, can be altered based on an individual’s habits, so by deciding on a nightly bedtime and changing habits, thus making sleep a priority, one can end the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation (2). As a result, one will feel well-rested, and many of these problems will begin to dissipate. College is a difficult time for anyone, but with an adequate amount of sleep, the levels of difficulties faced will diminish greatly. So, the next time students are up studying in Olin Library and see the clock hit midnight, hopefully they will pack up their books and head back to their dorms. They will perform better, feel better, and look better.

Edited by: Chase Breimeier

Illustrated by: Caroline Cao

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