Even though sleep has numerous physical and mental health benefits — including boosting the immune system, strengthening the heart, helping maintain a healthy weight and supporting a more stable mood — Georgetown students often neglect to prioritize sleep.
While a standard optimal amount of sleep for college students is between seven and nine hours per night, 70 to 96% of college students sleep less than eight hours each weeknight, and over 50% of college students sleep less than seven hours per night. Although many students attempt to catch up by sleeping more on the weekends, people can’t repay sleep debt in this manner.
The explanation behind this has to do with the circadian rhythm: an internal clock known for secreting melatonin to tell you it’s time for bed. Not only will you still feel tired even after “repaying,” studies in night shift workers suggest that disrupting one’s typical circadian rhythm by not having a relatively regular sleep pattern can lead to long-term health risks including cancer, cognitive decline and early death. Still, I am conscientious of the precarious juggle students face with balancing academics, work, well-being, extracurriculars, etc.; that said, if you have the room to prioritize your sleep, consider doing so.
If you are able to take the initiative, the benefits of sleep are relevant to daily health. Students with more consistent sleep patterns reported higher levels of well-being and better grades, as getting enough sleep can recharge one’s ability to handle stressors, leading to less perceived stress and psychological strain in one’s day-to-day life.
Moreover, memory consolidation occurs during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, meaning that students internalize the material they study during the day best if they have had more REM sleep. Periods of REM sleep grow longer the more an individual sleeps.
Additionally, while those with mental health issues such as anxiety may be at greater risk for sleep problems, this association also goes the other way: Not getting enough sleep places people at greater risk of developing mental health issues. Researchers have found that both poor sleep quality and lack of sleep make individuals more likely to respond to stressors with negative emotions and, in general, to decrease positive emotions.
Lack of sleep can also interfere with the processing of daily events and the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors. In addition, sleep aids in supporting cognitive skills, including attention and memory.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends going to bed early, limiting naps, waking up on the weekend, avoiding nighttime caffeine, winding down before bed and eating a little, rather than a lot, right before bed to improve sleep quantity and quality. Additionally, implementing a buffer between drinking and bedtime can be beneficial, as alcohol can decrease sleep quality, even though it might help people fall asleep faster due to its sedative properties. This is because alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and can lead to waking up more often, sometimes due to bad dreams or having to use the bathroom.
Another way to improve sleep is to avoid phone usage right before bed. Exposure to screens can disrupt sleep patterns because of the stimulation of apps, particularly social media— which can keep people up even when they start trying to lie down to go to sleep — as well as the blue light, which can throw off one’s circadian rhythm and prevent them from going to sleep when it’s dark out and time for bed.
At Georgetown and its peer institutions, there is a normalization — and sometimes even a romanticization — of not getting enough sleep. From staying up late to cram for a test to staying out all night having too much fun, it is hard to go one day without hearing a friend or peer casually mention their lack of sleep. Sometimes it even seems like a trophy for working (or going) hard.
This peer influence can be challenging to navigate, especially for individuals who operate best with more sleep due to a range of factors including genetics.
At the end of the day, while some people may think they can get away with less sleep, no one is immune to the negative consequences of sleep deprivation.