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The Connection Between Sleep and Health in College

MJ O'Leary

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How often do you wake up full of energy, eager to embrace the day? Or do you regularly struggle to drag yourself out of bed with heavy eyes that barely stay open? Your answer to these two questions has a direct bearing on your mental performance, your mood, and ultimately your long term health.

Parents of college students who were recently home for winter break witnessed the first couple days of catch-up sleep (sometimes round the clock!). After a few weeks at home, we feel good sending them back to campus, rested and primed to tackle the next term.

But the truth is, it takes only a few days to land back in a state of sleep deprivation. Without sufficient sleep, students will find it harder to learn and to remember what was learned, and will lack the energy to make the most of their college experience. It’s that simple.

Hundreds of sleep studies conclude that most adults need around eight hours of sleep to maintain good health. Some people may be able to function well on seven and others may need closer to nine, but as a general rule, we need a solid eight hours of sleep each night (and growing teenagers may need upwards of ten hours). Sleep is the foundation of wellness yet almost 40% of us struggle to get enough.

Recent research has taught us a lot about what really happens when we sleep, and the importance of prioritizing sleep. Here is some important information that will help you take better care of your own health and mentor your college student in healthier sleep habits.

Why eight hours? What happens when we sleep?

Our bodies are super busy while we slumber. During sleep we fix damaged tissue, toxins are processed and eliminated, hormones essential for growth and appetite control are released and restocked, and energy is restored. When sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for the repair and detoxification. It’s like letting the town garbage collectors go home two hours early, every day, for a month. What happens to all the garbage they don’t get to? It piles up.

And if we don’t get enough sleep?

Lack of sleep has a huge impact on our overall state of health and wellbeing. A lack of sleep can even change the way our genes express themselves! In one study a group of healthy adults were limited to six hours of sleep for one week. Researchers measured the change in gene activity compared to the prior week when those same people were getting a full eight hours of sleep a night.

The lack of sleep caused the activity of 711 genes to become distorted. About half of the genes were switched off by a lack of sleep — these genes were associated with the immune system. The other half of the genes experienced increased activity by a lack of sleep — these were genes associated with the promotion of tumors, genes associated with long term chronic inflammation, and stress genes. This was after only one week of six hours of sleep! (To learn more, listen to Matt Walker's TED Talk, "Sleep is your superpower.")

If you don’t get enough sleep the health risks include:

  • Impaired cognitive function: Even one night of sleeping less than six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day.
  • Increased risk of accidents: You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are tired, as sleep deprivation slows your reaction time.
  • Increased emotional intensity: The part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions can be up to 60% more reactive when you've slept poorly.
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke: In one study, male workers who average six hours of sleep or less were 400–500% more likely to suffer cardiac arrest. Women with mild sleep disturbance are more likely to have high blood pressure than those who fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly.
  • Increased risk of cancer: Tumors grow up to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunction.

Tips for Deep Sleep

1. Sleep in a dark room.

A tiny lobe called the pineal gland secretes melatonin to calm the brain and help us relax. The pineal gland responds to darkness so exposure to bright light suppresses our ability to make melatonin. Reduce exposure to bright lights before bedtime and sleep in a dark room (or use a sleep mask). Find more tips for improving sleep habits in a college dorm room here.

2. Avoid eating close to bedtime.

Stop eating at least 2 hours before bedtime so the body is not spending the first few hours of sleep digesting a heavy meal.

3. Exercise.

A Stanford study found that 16 weeks in a moderate-intensity exercise program allowed people to fall asleep about 15 minutes faster and sleep about 45 minutes longer.

4. Eat good food.

Processed food full of chemicals and sugar will make your body work extra hard during the night to remove the toxins, leaving less time for healing and repair. It is possible to eat well on a campus meal plan! Share these tips with your student.

Something else to share with your student!

College students are infamous for late-night studying and the occasional all-nighter. Is sacrificing sleep to finish a paper or prep for a test an effective strategy?

The answer is an emphatic NO.

The U.S. Army modeled the effects of sleep deprivation on sharpshooters, and found that restricting sleep in the hopes of greater output is unproductive. For 21 days, four different units slept different amounts of time. The unit with only four hours of daily sleep was at first able to put more rounds on target in any 24 hour period (because they had more hours to work). After the third day, however, the lack of sleep was noticeable in their results; even with three extra hours in each day their output was less.

This chart shows that sleep deprivation results in a gradual, systematic decline in performance. Can you draw a parallel to college students giving up sleep to study?

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Performance During Continuous Combat Operations

Quality sleep starts the moment we wake up — the choices we make about what to eat, how much to exercise, and how to handle stress all impact our ability to get a great night’s sleep. Sleep affects how we look, feel and function on a daily basis and is vital to our health and quality of life.  When we get the sleep our body needs, we look radiant, we feel vibrant, and we have the energy to live our best lives.

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MJ O'Leary is founder and executive director of wellnessmultiplied. A certified Integrative Health and Wellness coach and mother of four, MJ has a BA in psychology from Gettysburg College, a certification in finance from the University of Chicago, and is a 2017 graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
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