Why is sleep important to the overall healthiness of an individual? How does the lack of sleep affect grades, relationships, and overall success of a college student? Sleep is the automatic resting function our body needs to replenish energy and repair the body. As the body uses all of the stored energy, it causes one to feel drowsy. This feeling can be dangerous and destructive to one’s health if not responded to. Children and adults alike are being pressured to cram more and more into their days, causing sleep to fall on their priorities. College students are especially susceptible to this country wide epidemic because of the demands put on them. These anxieties could have indirect influences on a student’s health and success in life.

Background Information

Sleep is the most common form of altered states of consciousness. “The sleep-wake cycle is a circadian rhythm” (Ciccarelli & White, 2013) which means that it occurs approximately every twenty four hours. The hypothalamus secretes melatonin – a chemical that causes the sleepy feeling – to keep the rhythm on track. A person at each age of development needs different amounts of sleep, but college students should aim to sleep between seven and nine hours each night. As a person ages, they need less and less sleep, until he/she requires only about six hours each night (Ciccarelli & White, 2013).

There are two type of sleep. REM is a stage in sleep where the mind is very active. The eyes move rapidly, dreams occur, and the body does not move. REM is the body’s way of repairing the mind after a particularly stressful day. NonREM sleep is the opposite. It is a lighter sleep where the body is repaired after a very physically demanding day. On an average night, the body maintains Non-REM sleep the majority of the night, with peaks of REM periodically to repair both body and mind (Ciccarelli & White, 2013).


Benefits of Sleep

Sleep is beneficial to many parts of the body and mind. Without sleep, the body would not be able to recover, and life spans would be reduced. During sleep, the body regenerates to become physically whole again. Aforementioned, this process is in action most of the night when the sleep cycle is in Non-REM. Cells and tissues recover from the stress of the day. Restoration of muscles and protein synthesis also occur exclusively during sleep (“Sleep and Health,” 2008). While the physical benefits of sleep are great, sleeps effects on the mental capacity are even more marvelous.

Sleep can greatly increase the recall of someone after a day of learning. Research conducted by Matthew Tucker and colleagues concluded that when comparing sleep to reward, sleep provided the best results to recall. In the experiment, one group was given a reward (more money at end of experiment) for recalling information a day after it was learned. The other group was not given a monetary reward, but instead was told to get a good night of rest and come back to retest their knowledge the next day. The group with the sufficient sleep but no reward tested higher than the group that wanted to do well to get more money (Tucker, Tang, Uzoh, Morgan & Stickgold, 2011). This was not the only study that showed that sleep can improve recall.

An experiment tested to see how well declarative memories were stored and recalled when sleep closely followed or did not. The study found that “when sleep shortly follows declarative task learning, it actually slows the subsequent rate of deterioration during the post-sleep wake period, suggesting that an important function of sleep is to stabilize newly learned declarative memories” (Payne, Tucker, Ellenbogen, Wamsley, Walker, Schacter & Stickgold, 2012). These two experiments support the claim that sleep after studying can improve the ability to recall. Scientists, teachers, and students alike can use this information to increase students’ knowledge and ability in the classroom and out.

Sleep has an amazing impact on health benefits. There is an equal if not greater negative effect if a person deprives his/her body of the necessary sleep it needs. Some of the effects are quite noticeable while others are more subtle.

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Sleep deprivation has a similar way of working on the brain as alcohol. If one is sleep deprived right before taking a big exam, it is like that person is going into the exam after having 2 to 3 alcoholic beverages.

Risks of Sleep Deprivation

With a normal “sleep diet” of less than eight hours a night, adults are at a great risk of developing health risks. Cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes are common. Generally, sleep deprived people are at risk of a lower immune system, which creates an increased risk of catching the common cold (“Sleep and Health,” 2008). As children age, their “internal clock” shifts from early risers to night owls. “During puberty, changes occur in hormone systems…[leading to] consequent difficulty in getting up early and a preference for staying up late in the evening” (Pizza, Contardi & Antognini, 2010). If a teen cannot sleep the hours his body wishes because of school or other responsibilities, it can cause him/her to sleep less. This is seen more and more in American society, and subsequently, the mental and physical changes that sleep deprivation causes. Along with physical problems, there is a slower reaction time when someone is tired. Shelby Harris conducted research in 1960 and found that motor perception decreased dramatically when one had not rested properly (Harris, 1960).

A not as noticeable bodily change from sleep deprivation is the changes in the brain and mental processing. There are three brain processes: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Sleep affects each brain process differently. Acquisition is the ability to obtain information; this is like learning information for the first time. Without sleep, it is harder to focus in general, causing the new information to “go in one ear and out the other.” This acquisition stage will not be effective if a person is not paying attention to the important material. Consolidation is the process of transferring information from the short term memory to the long term. During consolidation, the brain is physically changed to either create a new memory or destroy an old memory. If one is deprived of sleep during this important process, the consolidation of factual and procedural memories will be disrupted. Recall, the final and most difficult process, cannot occur if either of the two previous processes were disrupted by sleep or something else (“Sleep and Memory,” 2008). Sleep is very important in the learning and storing of new information. Research was conducted using empirical methods (three studies of paid volunteers) about how sleep deprivation affects memory involving details about events that had occurred. The study was consistent with earlier convictions that “sleep deprivation leads to a lack of motivation, ability” (Blagrove, 1996). This study may be able to identify why the medical professionals can at times falter due to the employees irregular sleep schedules.


Application of Health Hazards
People working in the medical profession have become accustomed to the demanding schedules and stresses that the job entails. Many emergency room doctors and nurses, along with surgeons and other high stress areas of the field often report never feeling fully rested. Their actions can determine if a person lives or dies, and many doctors and other medical staff are coming under tough criticism for their lack of perfection. Harvard researchers are now accrediting some of this carelessness to the lack of sleep the professionals receive. They found that without sleep the prefrontal cortex in the brain does not function to the fullest capacity. This section is responsible for reasoning and complex thought, and is very vulnerable to sleep deprivation (“Judgment and Safety,” 2008). So doctors with harsh working schedules cannot give the brain and body full time to recover, causing foolish mistakes to be made that affect innocent people needing help. Another grand example of how sleep deprivation affects bystanders is people falling asleep while driving.

Cases of individuals falling asleep at the wheel have increased dramatically over the past decades, as the strain humans put on themselves continue to increase. A report from Harvard’s sleep lab concluded that at least twenty percent of crashes are related to sleep in some way (“Judgment and Safety,” 2008). Research done by Pizza and others found that “young adults are involved in two thirds of all sleepiness-related crashes” (Pizza, Contardi & Antognini, 2010). The crashes occurred mostly at night by tired men. The researchers also found that “the test subjects recognized their sleepiness, but did not adequately prevent and counteract the occurrence.” These accidents can be fatal or cause serious injury to the driver at fault or other innocent people around them. As the demands of everyday life continue to increase for people of all ages, sleep is neglected, and others’ safety can be at risk.

Tips to Sleep Longer and Better

Many students and people of all ages know they need to get more sleep, but they do not know how. Here are some great tips to feel sleepy at the right times and to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Go to bed early
  • Do something relaxing before bed
  • Put away electronics so brain can have enough time to calm down
  • Only use bed for sleeping
  • If you must, nap before 3 PM and for less than an hour
  • Avoid caffeine especially after 3 PM
  • Eat a healthy snack before bed (“College students: Getting,” 2007)

College Students and Sleep

Many college students do not understand these risks and benefits of resting adequate hours during the day. The material is not taught it schools, and as many people realize that a good night’s sleep affects them in remarkable ways, they believe their lives are just too busy to spend the necessary amount of time to sleep in a day. While other health risks are involved, many college students actually perform poorer academically and socially if they stay up to study.

“Among college students who carried a full academic load, those who reported poorer sleep quality were likely to perform worse on academic tests” (Gaultney, 2010). This can be disastrous if a student decides to cram for a test instead of sleeping. The student will not only forget most of that information, but the body and mind will not be well-rested, causing loss of focus and worse test performance. If the cycle continues, research supports the claim that sleep-deprived students will tend to choose easier courses and will not get involved in extracurriculars. “Students who are chronically sleepy may limit their future options by choosing easier courses while in college” (Gaultney, 2010).Sleep is one of the most important health related actions a college student can do to increase happiness, success, and a healthy lifestyle.

When asked to identify which class of people is most deprived of sleep, many individuals would probably first think of college students. With their demanding school responsibilities, jobs, athletics, and other extracurriculars, these people usually rank sleep at the bottom of their priorities. Aforementioned, adults should average seven to nine hours of sleep on an average night. When polled, two thirds of college students agreed that they do not get enough sleep, and the few blinks of sleep they manage to get are not quality sleep hours. In fact, only eleven percent of students meet the criteria for sleep quality (“Sleep Guide,” 2008). Students and schools alike are listening to the experts, and subtle but important differences are being implemented in schools all over the country to help students of all ages catch a few more blinks of sleep.


School districts have responded well to the recent reports of how sleep affects children as they age. At the request of Congress, many schools country-wide have pushed back their starting time to allow students of all ages to have the ability to be more rested (“School Start Time,” 2013).

Many colleges are noticing the correlation between the lack of sleep their students get and their slacking grade point averages. Colgate University started a “Come to Bed” campaign by setting out beds for their students to take small naps in between classes. Schools in Massachusetts have begun handing out sleeping materials to learn about how to sleep better, along with earplugs, sleep masks, and a sleep log to track if students are consistently sleeping better or worse. MIT has taken it a step further to encourage the students’ parents to contact the school if they believe their students are sleep deprived (Marcus, 2009).

Students have responded positively to these campaigns supporting sleep. They are now “recognizing the connection between sleep and good academic performance,” and they have begun to put more emphasis on their health (Marcus, 2009). However, how much of an impact will these small campaigns have on the behavior of an entire culture in America? With the growing demands of all people and especially college students, sleep is being overlooked now more than ever.

College students are staying up late and depriving themselves of sleep due to their many necessities. “Universities intensify their demands that students supplement their coursework with community service; prospective employers require them to participate in extracurricular activities and internships; and parents urge them to get part-time jobs to help cover the spiraling cost of tuition” (Marcus, 2009).

While schools across the country say they are committed to supporting their students in their quest to get more sleep, their actions prove otherwise. In a study conducted by a professor at St. Lawrence University, Pamela Thacher found that “during examinations…the library was open 24 hours a day and food was being served until 11pm” (Marcus, 2009).

The physical and mental benefits of resting enough each day should motivate everyone to go to bed early enough each evening. However, many people do not understand that when they miss a few nights of sleep, they increase their physical risks and decrease their focus. Americans need to do more to cut down on stressors and learn about the great effects of sleep. Education is the best way to change behavior. While colleges are recognizing and attempting to correct their students’ sleeping abnormalities, society is expecting too much from them for the small impacts to help. Although awareness about the topic is the first step to recovering from this epidemic, students, parents, and schools must work together to find a balance between health and responsibilities.

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