—Robert H., fifth-year student, Marquette University, Wisconsin
Any sleep is better than no sleep, and the more sleep, the better, but it’s not just about hours. Even when you get sufficient total hours of sleep, getting broken, or fragmented, sleep contributes to “sleep insufficiency.” We are usually aware of sleep insufficiency because we are groggy, underperforming, and more likely to get sick. But the effects can sometimes be subtle, and we can be good at ignoring the symptoms and rationalizing our unhealthy sleep patterns. In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has increased efforts to address insufficient sleep as a public health risk, largely because of the adverse effects.
Insufficient sleep affects your health in ways you may not realize
Insufficient sleep causes both short-term and long-term adverse effects. Short-term effects are typically related to alertness and performance. We all know the feeling of being too tired to focus in class or give our best performance during a presentation, but we’re probably less aware of the mild, subtle declines in focus and processing that can lead to:
- Hampered learning
- Diminished athletic performance
- Impediment of memory formation and access
- Blunting of creativity
- Greater risk of making poor decisions when behind the wheel
- Other negative consequences in everyday functioning
The long-term adverse effects occur with longstanding insufficient sleep (meaning years and even decades of it) and include increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity, and depression. In fact, according to the CDC, daily sufficient sleep is one of the five key health behaviors for preventing chronic disease (along with not smoking, getting regular physical activity, moderate or no alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight).
Broken sleep can affect your grades
To understand the impact of broken sleep, you need to understand what happens when we sleep for a short time versus a long time. If you look at a graph of normal sleep cycles (below), you’ll see that the cycles vary over the course of the night. Early in sleep, we get more deep sleep and more non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. As the night goes on (when sleep is not broken), we get more REM sleep. Shorter sleep hours can deprive us of the benefits of normal cycling, and especially of REM sleep. REM sleep is thought to be particularly important for learning, including motor learning (as for sports, dance, theater, and other physical movement activities) and concept learning (as for understanding how money operates in an economy, human-environmental interactions, and other concepts). Allowing enough sleep time for normal sleep cycling is important for optimal mental function and health.
While many students stay up late to finish schoolwork or “do a little more studying,” this often proves counterproductive. Less sleep impairs concentration, a necessary first step in memory formation, and negatively impacts formation of long-term memory (true learning). As a rule, people who sleep more will learn more quickly and remember what they learn better. This goes for both concept learning and motor learning.
Some people, unfortunately, lack control over their sleep patterns. Faced with demands of work, family, etc., they choose to sacrifice sleep to achieve other goals. For many people, though, insufficient sleep is preventable by enjoying their sleep time and making sleep a higher priority. The health and academic benefits, in both the short and long term, of this decision are substantial.