College Students are Sleep Deprived. No surprises there.

I’m in a class right now about sleep (Psych 435: Biological Rhythms and Behavior), and it has definitely been one of the more interesting and relevant classes I’ve taken since coming to this university.  On the first day of class, my professor told us that she didn’t believe in using textbooks because they were not up to date on the most recent sleep research, so instead of paying for a textbook, we spent our money on a Zeo device.  For those of you who haven’t heard of Zeo, it’s a small headband you wear while you’re asleep that will track and record your sleep.  It tells you how much time you spend in REM and non-REM sleep, how many minutes it took you to fall asleep, and how many times you woke up in the middle of the night.  Then, it gives you suggestions on how to improve your sleep.

My favorite feature of this device is definitely the alarm.  For those of you who don’t know, you feel the most refreshed when you wake up at the end of  a full sleep cycle (each cycle is typically 90 minutes but varies between individuals).  On the other hand, if you force yourself to wake up in the middle of your cycle, you tend to feel more groggy and sleepy for the rest of the day.  The alarm on the Zeo device will wake you up only at the end of your sleep cycle–that way, even if you can only get a few hours of sleep (like so many college students experience), you can maximize your sleep efficiency by waking up only at the end of a sleep cycle.

I actually hated measuring my sleep at the beginning of the semester because it just made me depressed to see how poor my sleep quality was.  They give you a score (1-100) for overall sleep each night, and while the average person gets a score of around 80, I was consistently getting a score in the 40’s and 50’s.  One time, I even got a shocking 74.  But that never happened again.

Sometimes, I thought my Zeo device was broken.  I thought it was impossible that I could be scoring in the 40’s because I slept completely fine.  Sure, I was tired in the morning, but who isn’t?  I just make myself a cup of coffee and I’m good to go for the rest of the day.  I am perfectly fine performing my daily activities and I never feel sleepy during class.  But why was this Zeo device telling me otherwise?

Well, I got my question answered in a research article we read for that class, and I am still shocked at the results of their study.  In this study, they concluded that chronic sleep restriction (defined as 6 hours of sleep or less p/night) produced cognitive performance deficits equivalent to 2 nights of total sleep deprivation.  I will spare you the horrifying details from the results of their study, but basically, I function just as well as someone who has pulled 2 all nighters in a row.

What?! There are definitely periods of time when I consistently get 5-6 hours of sleep a night, but I didn’t think the effects would be that detrimental.  The article stated that people who are chronically sleep deprived (like me) don’t think of themselves as feeling that tired (me again), but that is almost more dangerous because they believe that can function completely normally.

I can definitely relate.  I don’t pull all nighters that frequently, but when I do, I feel like complete crap.  However, when I get 6 hours of sleep for a week or two, I just get so used to it and become so dependent on caffeine that I feel just fine.

Now it all makes sense.  My zeo device was not wrong.  I just overestimated my cognitive abilities.

As the semester is quickly ending and finals are approaching, I find it almost impossible to get more than 6 hours of sleep.  But now I’m torn because it may be doing more harm and good to stay up late working on an essay or studying for an exam if I’m really going to be that cognitively impaired.  Maybe if I slept earlier, I’d be more efficient working during the day.  On the other hand, sleeping the night before an exam when I haven’t gone over all my notes is really not going to help me much.

Any thoughts or ideas?


6 thoughts to “College Students are Sleep Deprived. No surprises there.”

  1. I love this post! I can’t believe such a device exists. I should probably invest in one. You are not alone in your sleep deprivation. I wake up (on most days) with a headache and bags underneath my eyes. No matter if I try to sleep at 11, I never fall asleep before 12:30 AM (but normally later, like 1:30 ish). I wonder if our sleep deprivation has anything to do with anxiety. Our thoughts are moving so quickly throughout the day, and by the time we are finally able to wind down, it is difficult to slow our minds. When I feel rested, I am definitely able to have a more productive day though. I am more attentive and participatory in class and I am generally more happy. For me, it’s more the waking up late that makes me feel rested than going to bed early. Who knows.

  2. Shirley,
    Thanks so much for the post! This year has made me think a lot about sleep, too. Last semester I was getting about 5/6 hours of sleep a night (usually staying up late in the library studying), and I didn’t think too much of it. I figured that was just the normal college lifestyle. But then I got a cold that I couldn’t kick. From Thanksgiving until I went home for winter break, I felt terrible. I struggled to do well in my classes because I felt so sick, so I stayed up late to study to compensate, and then felt sicker as a result. It was a vicious cycle. Only once I went home for winter break and was able to hibernate in own bedroom was I able to recover. I came back to campus this semester and I promised myself that I would sleep a full 8 hours every night (I even dropped a class to ensure that I could make this goal a reality). I decided that my health should be my priority- and I’ve stuck to that. Yes, once in a while I don’t get those full 8 hours, but I’ve been pretty good about it. I feel much better this semester, and I think I owe that to my new sleep habits.

  3. I don’t get so much sleep at night (like you, five to six hours), but I often take naps in the afternoon. I wonder if the study accounted for that? I’d be interested to see how napping enhances or drains one’s cognitive performance. For the record, I love naps, and I love sleeping in.
    Unfortunately, I have no idea how you can balance sleep with work. I’ve found that all-nighters don’t help me at all. In the wee hours of the morning, I can’t function. Still, I’d figure that even some sleep is better than none at all – you can at least stave off tiredness until you get the chance to have a proper night’s sleep.

  4. Shirley,

    This is so interesting, thanks for the post! Sleep is something that I often think about. I’m someone who never has dream. I guess I do have dreams because I guess everyone does, but I mean I never remember having them. It’s super rare for me and I always wonder if it has to do with when I wake up in my sleep cycle.

    This is such an important thing for college students to pay attention too. Although grades are on the top of many student’s priority lists, sleep and well being is much more important I think . If we are getting the proper rest and we can be less stressed, I think school will come much easier to many of us.

    Anyway this is really cool and I think I want to get one of those Zeo things!


  5. Shirley,

    I’m taking this class next semester! So excited. And scared.

    Similar to the Zeo device, I downloaded an app on my phone called Sleep Cycle (download it y’all, it’s THE SHIT). Not sure how effective or valid it actually is, but since I’ve been using it I feel pretty refreshed. It essentially does the same thing as the Zeo device for $1 or $2 (can’t really remember how much it was off the top of my head) and you just have to put your phone on your bed while it’s charging with the screen down.

    I’m almost embarrassed of my “sleep stats” though – in the last 42 nights, my average time in bed is 4 hours and 35 minutes. Sadness. As you mentioned, having learned about sleep and its impact on your health makes me almost ashamed to admit how little I get per night. Working 2-3 jobs and taking ~15 credits every semester (and doing well..or at least trying to) has definitely made it easy to not make sleep a priority. I like to convince myself that I’ve gotten pretty accustomed to my ~4 hrs of sleep/night (+ a cup of coffee..or five..throughout the day. yum. I could really go for one right now.) lifestyle, but I know it’s not the healthiest and it will eventually catch up to me.

    As you’ve probably heard, lack of sleep has been a huge problem for resident doctors (isn’t it funny that people who understand the most about the body and health continue to knowingly abuse their own? but do they even have a choice?). I recently read an interesting article about how many hospitals have begun to implement shorter shifts for their residents (because of this lack of sleep issue and knowing it is contributing to mistakes in patient care) – but they continue to make even more mistakes following the shift cuts.

    Check out the article here..

    Thanks for sharing!

    Best wishes from one sleep deprived student to another,

  6. College is such a killer on my sleep schedule – I think I get about one good night’s sleep every other week, if I’m lucky. Because I often have to get up really early, that would require me going to bed at around 11 at night. I don’t think anybody I know goes to sleep before 12; in fact, I usually pass out at around 2 or 3 in the morning. Between school and social life, I hardly ever get as much sleep as I want. And that’s my NORMAL sleep experience; around midterms and finals, sleep totally goes out the window. I pulled three all-nighters in the last week, and am definitely paying the price. I can barely focus, I feel miserable, and I feel like I’m about to get sick again. Unfortunately, our culture just kind of accepts a lack of sleep, and once again I’ll just have to ride it out until summer.

    As for exams, it depends on the situation. I do believe the studies which say you’re better off going to sleep than staying up all night, but that doesn’t always apply. You’re not going to do better on a test if you go to sleep instead of reading the textbook for the first time. Essays, in my experience, are more easily written at night when you have fewer distractions.

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