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The value of getting substantial sleep can never be overestimated, especially for busy students. Homework, meetings, and other tasks often seem like they take precedence over a good night’s rest, and before-bed texts or email updates can lure weary students from proper slumber.
Bleary eyes and achy muscles are a few of the symptoms of poor sleep, but there are other effects that are less obvious. Lack of adequate, sound sleep can have long-term health consequences.
Even though it may sound counterintuitive, enough sleep is a key to academic success, and more importantly, your body and mind will feel refreshed and ready to take on whatever challenges are ahead of you.
Sleeping Away Sickness
You’re not dreaming—you really will feel an amazing difference in your body when you let it re-energize. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, respondents stated that they feel groggy, sluggish, and have difficulty concentrating when not getting sufficient sleep. Not only will you feel more energetic, but your body will also function better.
“When I get enough sleep, I almost never get sick,” says Rachael R., a student at Winona State University in Minnesota. “This semester I made it a priority to get enough sleep and I didn’t get sick once, which is amazing because I’m a nursing major who spends a lot of time in the hospital around sick people.”
Rachael’s experience isn’t an anomaly. Researchers consistently find that getting insufficient sleep prevents the immune system from functioning optimally. A 2012 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation indicated that, “While many sleepers swear they do just fine on three or four hours of shuteye a night, [there is a] dramatic difference in immune response in subjects who slept four hours to six hours, as opposed to those who were tucked in for seven to nine.” Further, the study found that it was the amount of time sleeping that was most important, rather than the quality.
Lack of sleep has a major effect on the regulation of hormones and other physiological processes. The effects aren’t always immediate or obvious, but there’s a lot going on within your body when you deprive it of the sleep it craves.
Dr. Michel Bornemann, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis, says, “Chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with a disturbance in endocrine regulation of energy homeostasis.” The endocrine system is responsible for managing your hormones, and according to Bornemann, “Hormonal alterations are associated with increased weight gain.”
The part of your brain that controls such functions, the hypothalamus, needs sleep for regulation and to keep your weight in check. This is partly a physiological process, but when you haven’t gotten much sleep, you’re also more likely to crave foods that will provide a quick shot of energy. These are usually high in fat and calories. Plus, your body can’t fully reap the benefits of regular physical activity if you’re not getting consistent, deep sleep.
Sleep and Mental Health
John T., a student at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa, also notices a link between a healthier body and mind, thanks to a little more sleep. “My energy level and focus are improved when I am able to get sufficient sleep,” he says. “I am also less stressed, allowing for better control of my blood pressure and the reduction of migraines and tension headaches.”
Sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in cortisol, more commonly known as the body’s “stress hormone.” Stress makes us do things we normally wouldn’t, such as reaching for junk food that’s high in fat and calories (that will further decrease your energy level and lower your mood), and engaging in other unhealthy habits or vices. A little more sleep can put your mind at ease and help you feel better about life.
“When I get sufficient sleep I feel a lot better mentally, which means I stress out a lot less,” says Alfonso F., a student at University of California, Davis. “Stressing out usually makes my immune system weak, which in turn makes me get sick easily.” As he notes, there is a strong connection between stress, emotional health, and physical well-being.
Jessica M., a student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, says, “Before school I was getting four to six hours [of sleep] a night, working six days a week, full- and part-time. I was always tired and sluggish, and felt negative about most things. Now that I’m in school and don’t go to work at 7 every morning and then another job after, I feel a lot better and more positive. It’s actually improved my mental health.” Jessica, like many students, now wants to reap the benefits of putting sleep first.
Pay Attention to Your Body
If you find yourself falling asleep at your desk (c’mon, we’ve all done it), you’re obviously exhausted, but you might not realize how powerful your fatigue really is. Insufficient sleep can make for a severe lack of focus.
As Bornemann explains, “Acute sleep deprivation is often associated with episodes of ‘microsleep,’ or brief, uncontrollable periods of sleep lasting three to six seconds. [They can] intrude upon wake at inopportune times, such as during a lecture.”
The American Automobile Association indicates that young people are especially known for drowsy driving, and Bornemann says, “Research studies reveal that the impairment in motor performance after pulling off a sleepless all-nighter is very similar to the impairment experienced when driving while intoxicated with alcohol.”
Make Sleep a Priority
Nicki K., a fourth-year journalism student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, didn’t always put sleep first. But now she understands the impact it has on her well-being.
“Getting a good night’s sleep didn’t matter as much to me my freshman year of college, because I would routinely procrastinate and stay up late, and sometimes get only four to five hours of sleep at night,” she says. “Now I know that my body wants to go to sleep between midnight and 2 a.m. If something isn’t done by then, it’s not usually worth doing.”
To maintain his high grades, John has made sleep a main concern in his life, too, and readers agree that sleep should come first. Over 80 percent of respondents to the Student Health 101 survey said that sleeping seven to nine hours a day is necessary to function optimally, and almost 60 percent try to get this amount of sleep.
If you can prioritize what needs to be done immediately and what can wait, you’ll get a bit more sleep, minutes—or even hours—at a time.
- Listen to your body; it will send you signals when you haven’t gotten enough sleep.
- Sleep increases focus and energy, but also plays an essential role in physical and emotional well-being. Make it a priority.
- Sleep has an impact on your immune system and hormones. Getting enough helps you avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight.
- Be mindful of the activities you take part in when you’re drowsy.
- Find support among friends and encourage one another to get your zzz’s.
Get help or find out more
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine
Sleep, The official journal of the Sleep Research Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine