Sleep deprivation impacts college students

BYU students share whether they get enough sleep at night and explain what things prevent them from getting to bed on time. (Video by Hannah McKinlay)

Most college students are all too familiar with feeling low on sleep. Juggling school, jobs and social lives does not often leave much time for a good night’s rest. 

Neurologist David Peterson confirmed college students experience a uniquely high level of sleeping problems. Peterson runs a sleep clinic in Salt Lake City and sees an especially large number of patients in their early twenties. 

He said there are plenty of factors keeping students up at night, even for the ones who make time to get enough sleep. Light is a prominent cause of sleep deprivation, Peterson said. The change from light to dark — and vice versa — controls a person’s internal clock, telling them when to go to sleep and when to wake up. 

In the modern world of technology, artificial light alters that internal clock. While humans used to see about 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, humans see considerably more light during a 24-hour period, he said.

“We are so attached to our electronics that the brain cannot tell that that light is not the sun,” Peterson said. “So the common problem is delayed sleep phase syndrome, which is basically being a night owl.”

BYU psychology professor Blake Jones described the role stress plays in amount and quality of sleep, especially for college students. 

“This is a period of life where people are making particularly important and meaningful decisions, and it can be difficult to turn off those thoughts and calm down enough to fall asleep,” he said.

Other enemies of sleep, according to Peterson, are multitasking and taking in multiple forms of stimulation at once, habits that are prevalent in college life. “If you give your brain messages of alertness before you go to bed, it’s going to be more vigilant throughout not just falling asleep, but the whole night,” he said.

Sleep deprivation does a lot more than make someone tired. Other effects include memory loss, poor concentration and various medical problems. 

Peterson said a person loses about 10% of their memory for each hour of sleep missed. He also noted people feel the effects of about two weeks worth of sleep debt and this is especially relevant for people in school. 

“They always say to get a good night’s sleep before the test, but even just in the learning process you want to make sure you’re getting plenty,” he said. 

Sleep affects other cognitive functions in addition to memory. “Sleep deprivation can make it harder for people to learn, harder to focus and it decreases our reaction time, which can affect anything from how we do in the classroom to how we respond to social situations to how we react while driving,” Jones said.

Because the body fulfills so many important functions during sleep, sleep loss can also lead to a host of medical problems. Peterson said some people feel the effects of lack of sleep in the forms of aches and pains rather than sleepiness. 

Jones also talked about the physical effects: “Short sleep duration or poor-quality sleep weakens our immune systems and makes us more likely to get sick,” he said. “It alters our hormones and can have a negative impact on our metabolism, appetite and even how we physically respond to stress.”

Despite these damaging effects, research performed by BYU psychology professor Daniel Kay and graduate students suggests worrying about sleep is not the answer. The survey study found that those who place more value on sleep tend to have poorer sleep health. Graduate student Zach Simmons worked on this research and he indicated that this may be because of stress about sleep.

“When we take naps outside of a routine, spend more time in bed and worry about our sleep, we may overvalue sleep and actually worsen our sleep,” Simmons said. “We would recommend reducing restrictions and rigidity around sleep by not trying to ‘make up for lost sleep.’” 

This rigidity is often perpetuated by dysfunctional beliefs promoting an obsession with getting enough sleep, he said. 

These beliefs are articulated in the “Dysfunctional Beliefs about Sleep” questionnaire. Some examples are “I need eight hours of sleep to feel refreshed and function well during the day,” “After a poor night’s sleep, I know it will interfere with my activities the next day” and “Without an adequate night’s sleep, I can hardly function the next day.” 

Students may be able to feel more well-rested if they alter some of their habits and keep a flexible mindset, rather than fixating on sleep, Simmons said. 

Jones emphasized the importance of maintaining a consistent evening routine, as well as avoiding eating, exercising and looking at screens right before bed. 

When it comes to activities to be done before bed that increase the chances of a good night’s sleep, Peterson recommends four criteria: The activity should be (1) thought-capturing, (2) stay on topic for at least 10-15 minutes, (3) not be emotionally charged and (4) not have a distinct beginning and end. 

“If you have to start at point A and go to point B, that creates anticipation. This is why movies and novels are horrible for sleep,” he said. “That anticipatory effect is corroding.”

Both Blake and Peterson agree the activity must be personalized to be successful. Everyone is different, so there is no single right answer to help someone sleep better.

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