It is common knowledge that sleep and academic performance are closely linked. However, research has shown that university students are the most sleep deprived population – and while some students report having good sleep, a vast majority report having sleep issues.
Sleep has a vital role in our overall well-being, serving many functions, such as revitalizing our body and mind; assisting the growth and repair of muscle and tissue; and aids in our immunity to infection. Sleep is also important for brain connectivity and flexibility, for which learning and memory processes rely on.
The American National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years, and age range encompassing all student populations. Often, many students are chronically sleep deprived during the week, resulting in the attempt to ‘catch up’ on their missing sleep over the weekend.
Studies have found that compared to morning-type students, evening-type students have additional academic adjustment difficulties, and report greater levels of substance use. This is supported by the common trend of studying late at night and even ‘pulling all-nighters’. It is therefore important for students to be aware of the potential severe consequences of acute and prolonged sleep deprivation. Too many students have missed lectures, assignment deadlines and experience cramming the night before an exam – and this has all been to their own detriment as a result of depriving themselves of sleep.
There is a correlation between exposure to artificial light such as that from cell phone and laptop screens before bed and a delay in the circadian phase. The ‘blue light’ emitted from electronic devices supresses melatonin (the hormone which induces sleep), and reduces one’s quality of sleep. In addition to this, it may hinder one’s ability to retain and recall information, a disastrous repercussion when aiming for good grades. Interestingly, results of a recent study found that sleeping later may be associated with the tendency for university students to be outside more in the evening; and that perhaps exposure to dusk light may have an effect on their circadian rhythms. Ultimately, the lack of good quality sleep in the student population can be attributed to an increasing demand in the academic, social and recreational aspects in their day to day lives.
There are a number of consequences that students can potentially face as a result of poor sleep.
Sleep deprivation can result in many cognitive impairments, as well as physical and mental health consequences. Short term effects include: fatigue, daytime sleepiness, reduced concentration, impaired immune function, and the inability to cope with stress; while long term sleep deprivation can result in cardiovascular disorders, increased risk for cancer, negative reproductive effects, weight gain, as well as gastrointestinal disorders. Additional consequences include deterioration in academic performance, road accidents, and psychiatric issues. Depression and anxiety are amongst the most prevalent mental disorders experienced by students. These mental disorders can often manifest into sleep disorders, such as insomnia, parasomnias, and nightmare disorder, but are also exacerbated by poor sleep, thus creating a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health.
Sleep deprivation hinders concentration, recall and overall alertness, and this results in poorer academic performance. Proper time management, planning and prioritising a good night’s sleep can benefit any student in the long run.
We live in a world where hard work is valued more than a good night’s sleep – and research has shown that it should in fact be the opposite. Thus, if we are to make a change, it needs to start with the future workers – the students.
UCT 3rd year BSc Student (Human Anatomy & Physiology and Psychology)