For many university students, sleep deprivation has become an accepted part of their life, but research shows that missing some shut-eye can have long-term implications.
A third of university students were not getting enough sleep, a recent research paper out of Edith Cowan University found.
Many students were unaware of how many hours of sleep they should be getting, what time they should be going to bed, and what effective strategies for sleeping were.
Pulling all-nighters, cramming before late assignment deadlines, and high workloads contributed to sleepless nights for some students, with one respondent reporting that sleep was “not a priority but a luxury”.
Edith Cowan uni occupational therapy lecturer Katrina Liddiard, who is co-author of the study, said sleep was crucial for students.
“I would encourage students to think of sleep as one of the most important things in their arsenal in their studies,” she said.
“The research is quite clear, if you learn a task and study until you do it, versus if you learn a task and sleep and have another go at it, you do significantly better if you have the sleep.”
Someone who is going to prioritise sleep, and sleep well, is going to cement their learning better rather than holding on to it long enough to pass a test.
Swinburne University psychology lecturer Dr Ben Bullock, who has researched sleep throughout his career, said sleep deprivation comes in two forms, occasional and chronic.
“Occasional lack of sleep, most people can deal with, once you start getting into a chronic force, where you have multiple episodes of poor sleep, that is where more long-term issues can happen.”
Sleep Health Foundation clinician Professor Dorothy Bruck is an expert in sleep disorders, with over three decades of research on the issue. When it comes to occasionally missing a few hours, Dr Bruck said the effects were relatively minimal.
[The effects] are usually cognitively based, so around losing concentration and memory, not being able to attend to things. But also, being less creative, less being able to solve problems.
However, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation are far bleaker.
“[Chronic sleep deprivation] can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, it can increase your risk of diabetes, it also reduces testosterone production, and it can be associated with increased obesity,” Prof Bruck said.
Dr Bullock said the mental health disorders associated with chronic sleep deprivation were also concerning.
“Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, insomnia – these sorts of things we know there are closely related to sleep disorders, particularly at the chronic disorders,” he said.
With the consequence of missing sleep considerable, the root cause of this public health concern is multifaceted, with no one factor solely responsible.
Dr Bullock said one thing was clear, screens before bedtime were not helping.
These devices are blue light-emitting, and the blue light interferes with your melatonin synthesis.
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for the feeling of sleepiness which is vital to your body clock. It helps regulate the circadian rhythm by increasing in the evening, with light-blocking melatonin production.
“Where your melatonin is rising before you go to bed, blue light from your devices suppresses melatonin, and it’s not allowing you to go to sleep,” Dr Bullock said.
Blue light filters on screens have become commonplace, but Dr Bruck is sceptical that they will solve this issue.
“[Screens] can be quite stimulating. If you are sitting up in bed reading a whole lot of things on social media that you find exciting or depressing, then you will take those emotions to your sleep.”
“But if you do more neutral things in the hour before sleep, like having a chat or having a bath or listening to music, your chances of going to sleep is much higher than using your phone.”
Too much screen use can make it harder to fall asleep.
Prof Bruck said that, part from abstaining from screens, maintaining a consistent waking and sleeping time was integral to a stable body clock.
While this wasn’t usually an issue during the week, Dr Bruck said university students tended to sleep later on the weekend, causing body clock shifts.
“Young people are prone to having quite a lot of problems. The most common one is delayed sleep phase insomnia which is when your body clock gets shifted, and you want to stay up at night and sleep in in the morning.”
“And we see this particularly on the weekend, people follow their bodies natural tendencies to want to sleep in,” Prof Bruck said.
“Come Monday morning, they caught up on their sleep, but they’re getting up at a time when their body clock has already shifted a bit because they are used to getting up at 11am, and now they have to get up at 7am.”
Then they get into a cycle of sleep deprivation during the week and catching up on sleep on the weekend.
Prof Bruck said it was better to set your usual alarm and take an afternoon nap rather than sleeping later—this helps keep a consistent sleeping schedule throughout the week.
On the subject of waking time, Dr Bullock said catching some sunlight first thing in the morning was important to setting your daily rhythm given that light suppresses melatonin.
“My advice there is, try and get outside every day for an hour in the morning,” Dr Bullock said.
With multiple states in lockdown, Dr Bullock believes that many will find their sleep routine disrupted, stressing the importance of retaining a social rhythm in whatever form that comes.
“That could mean work hours, or study, or having breakfast with your housemates or your family.”