Health officials say lack of sleep can negatively affect students’ grades

Dr. Keith Willmore, medical director of the BYU Student Health Center, provided tips on how students can improve their sleep schedules. (Graphic by Chuck Dearden)

College students who deprive themselves of sleep are more at risk of losing academic success, according to health professional Dr. Keith Willmore. 

Willmore, medical director of the BYU Student Health Clinic, said there is definitely a connection between lack of sleep and poor academic performance. He said cognitive functions are worsened due to sleep deprivation.

“Most students tend to stay up much later and sleep in, resulting in both less quantity and quality sleep,” Willmore said in an email.

Daniel Kay, an assistant professor of psychology, explained there is a danger for students when it comes to this “sleep debt.”

“‘Sleep debt’ as it’s called, accumulates over time,” Kay said. “So if an individual obtains one to two hours less sleep than is needed on a nightly basis, after a week or two that starts to add up, and can have an impact of daytime functioning that is as great as going a whole night without sleep.”

An article written by Dr. Ronald D. Chervin and Dr. Shelley D. Hershner, published in the Journal of Nature and Science of Sleep, states “the consequences of sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness are especially problematic to college students and can result in lower grade point averages, increased risk of academic failure, compromised learning, impaired mood and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents.” 

Students who slept for more hours had higher grade point averages than shorter sleepers, according to the article.

The article also said “students with sleep disorders probably do not achieve optimal academic performance, and up to 27 percent of students may be at risk for at least one sleep disorder.”

Chervin, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and co-writer of the article, cautioned against considering sleep deprivation as a temporary issue.

There are hints in the literature, in the studies, that exist that suggest the opposite is true, that you may do permanent damage and that sleep disorders in particular may do permanent damage to the brain that only show up years later,” Chervin said. “I think that hopefully with the right longitudinal long-term studies, we will eventually answer this critical question but until then, I would not assume that sleep loss is only a temporary concern.”

There are solutions for college students looking to positively repair their sleep schedule, according to Willmore.

“Since most adults need eight hours of sleep each night, the best schedule for sleep is 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., or earlier,” Willmore said.

Jacob Wright, a BYU junior studying psychology, said his sleeping routine could be better if there was more consistency.

“I’ve noticed when I have a sleeping schedule down, if I’m getting at least seven hours, it’s good so long as I’m going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time,” Wright said.

Willmore suggested there are practices that students can adopt in order to improve their sleep schedule and in turn, their academic success.

“The best recommendation I can give is to establish a regular schedule for sleep, and get up at the same time each morning. Avoid taking naps during the day,” Willmore said. “Avoid caffeine or other stimulants as much as possible, especially later in the day, and make time for regular exercise – even just brisk walking to school or between classes – on a daily basis.”

Hershner, assistant professor of Neurology at the University of Michigan and another co-writer of the article, also suggested limiting technology 30 minutes before going to bed.

“Technology before bed is huge. Light blocks melatonin, makes it harder to sleep. It’s activating,” Hershner said.

Sleep schedules suffering from consistent, serious lack of sleep may require further treatment, according to Kay.

“If it’s to the point where you’re having difficulty going to sleep, it’s taking you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep or you’re waking up in the night and staying awake for longer than 30 minutes, and this is happening more than three times a week, and it’s been going on for more than three months, that’s the time to start thinking about seeking treatment for insomnia,” Kay said.

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