As students, we live with busy schedules that often get in the way of our sleep. Whether it is staying up to study for an exam, or staying out late on the weekend to burn off steam, it’s safe to say that few of us are getting the recommended seven to nine hours a night. The short-term effects of this are pretty obvious, as we chug coffee to keep our eyes open during lectures, but sleep deprivation comes with a number of long-term effects whose link to a lack of sleep is trickier to recognize.
There are very few things in the body that aren’t impacted when the brain gets fatigued due to sleep deprivation. A tired brain simply can’t perform the same way a well rested one can. Not surprisingly, this impaired cognitive function directly impacts our ability to perform as students. While we sleep, our brain takes the time to form neural connections that enable us to remember things; as such, a sleep-deprived brain is going to struggle with memory retention, reducing our ability to remember information in crucial moments. Furthermore, a weakened brain makes it difficult to think, concentrate and exercise proper judgement, all of which are important for success.
Another impact of a fatigued brain is its effect on our mood. Sleep deprivation can lead to problems with the neurotransmitters in our brains, directly affecting our mood. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to have mood swings, become moody and emotional and have shortened tempers. In more extreme cases of sleep deprivation, the impact on the neurotransmitters can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, which is why lack of sleep is often linked with mental health problems. A study from the University of Pennsylvania that limited its participants to four and a half hours of sleep per night for a week found that all of the subjects reported increased feelings of stress, sadness and anger. When they returned to their normal sleep patterns, they reported a dramatic improvement in their mood.
As well as affecting our cognitive functioning and mood, sleep deprivation can also negatively affect our physical well-being. Lack of sleep weakens the body’s immune system, making it harder to fight off viruses that cause colds and the flu. This is because the immune system does its repair work while we are asleep. However, it can also lead to more serious health problems. Sleep deprivation can cause an increase in blood pressure and levels of inflammation, which can put you at risk of heart attack and stroke. Blood sugar levels are also affected by sleep loss, heightening the risk of type two diabetes in extreme cases.
Sleep deprivation also poses a number of safety risks. Lack of sleep can impair judgement, balance and our reflexes, putting you at higher risk of physical injury. This becomes infinitely more dangerous when driving is involved. Studies show that driving while sleep deprived is very similar to driving under the influence. It is estimated that in the United States every year 100 000 road accidents are attributed to driver fatigue.
As important as it is to get a full night of sleep, it’s definitely easier said than done, especially if you have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night. Some simple ways to try and get a better sleep at night include: keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and naps late in the day. Studies also suggest that the blue light from your phone can interfere with your natural sleep patterns, so avoid screen time for at least 30 minutes before you plan to sleep.
Of course, none of us are perfect. As students, we have all procrastinated and chances are most of us have crammed a semester’s worth of studying into one night or stayed up until the early hours of the morning working on last minute assignments. That said, when it comes to student life, sleep is just as important as studying so it’s important to find a balance between the two.