[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
Here’s a question for collegiate debate teams everywhere:
Is pulling an all-nighter a good idea when it comes to final exams and their outcomes?
Some research suggests that a quarter of all college students don't get at least eight hours of sleep on any given night. During the week(s) of finals, that number probably drops off.
The same research shows that another 25 percent of students have also reported their academic performance slides as a result of sleep deprivation.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults ages 18 to 25 need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep for optimal physical and mental performance.
But some sources suggest the actual amount of sleep for college students actually falls in the 6-to-7-hour range.
Sleep deprivation will not serve you well during finals
Sleep deprivation is a serious problem on college campuses. Part of the challenge is in getting students to recognize they are sleep deprived.
Being sleep deprived means you’re not getting enough sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation (happening night after night), leads to sleep debt. An accumulation of sleep debt can be felt as daytime fatigue and sleepiness, physical clumsiness, and changes in weight (usually trending toward obesity). It can also lead to “brain fog” and problems with cognitive function or, in simpler terms, learning.
When sleep debt becomes the norm, the brain and body, ever interested in survival, will compensate by churning out stress hormones to increase energy levels and institute cravings (usually of carbs and fats) to promote appetite in an effort to supply the body with calories to maintain energy.
The brain, itself, is a well-known glucose “hog” and will require at least as much glucose (if not more) during periods of sleep deprivation as it does in well-rested mode.
Signs of sleep deprivation that are especially meaningful to college students include:
- Inability focus or concentrate
- Lapses in communication skills
- Inability to be a creative problem solver
- Daytime fatigue and “cognitive fog”
Poor habits that restrict sleep come at a price. Long-term health problems are well known to develop when sleep deprivation and sleep debt become normalized.
This means students who are losing sleep night after night in college risk obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, immune system dysfunction (getting sick all the time), mood disorders, and cardiovascular problems… and not just at the ends of their lives, but in their prime.
But more urgently, the signs of sleep deprivation hit home when, on a daily basis, these young people begin to feel sluggish and clumsy when they should be energized and adept. They may begin to forget words or names, struggle to process intellectual concepts, and experience problems with attention deficit in the classroom and during study sessions.
How can students defend against sleep deprivation during finals week?
Here are some relevant solutions for students heading into spring term exams:
Develop a study schedule at the beginning of the term and stick to it. This means learning how to beat procrastination by managing time. You can do this any number of ways: using apps, datebooks, and smartphone reminders.
Also, plan for adequate sleep time. Sleeping helps with learning and memory recall, so 3-hour nights of sleep and cramming on the week before or during finals isn’t going to do any student any favors and may actually result in poor test results that could have been avoided, had sleeping between 7 and 9 hours been made a priority.
Even better: In addition, plan for study time, exercise time, and fun social downtime to put a lid on stress during finals. You’ll sleep better!
- JUMP START YOUR MORNING.
Eat a high-protein breakfast, especially during finals. Your circadian rhythms aren’t only in charge of sleeping and waking up, but other things like digestion and metabolism. A hearty morning meal will keep you clear-headed and energized until you get some time for a mid-day break. This makes it easier to focus, concentrate, learn, and perform well on tests.
- MANAGE STRESS.
It doesn't take a lot of time, money, or space to engage in relaxing hobbies, such as knitting, doodling or adult coloring books, jigsaw puzzles, or cooking or baking (anything that is pleasurable but doesn’t require a screen to achieve). These activities can be done anywhere and will help your mind to shut down at night.
If you’re into meditation, go for it. If you’re into bowling or playing dominoes or sitting on a bench by a body of water, these are good options as well. Anything to help you slow down and let your brain get the rest it needs.
- TAKE BREAKS.
Two hours on, 30 minutes off might be a place to start. Get up and move around during your break. Have a healthy snack. Go outside and play Frisbee or walk around campus, then come back and start again.
- AVOID SUBSTANCES.
The urge to take “smart drugs” or sleep medications has never been more strong. However, most sleep deprivation problems can be solved by better sleep hygiene, as substances that may help with alertness or insomnia has myriad side effects and can lead to habituation. And skip smoking and all illicit drugs, including marijuana, if you want to have a clear head at finals.
- UNDERSTAND AND PRACTICE SLEEP HYGIENE.
WHAT IS SLEEP HYGIENE?
Anything you can do to prioritize sleep falls under the practice of good sleep hygiene.
This isn't about clean sheets and pretty pillowcases (though these can help you sleep better because they are inviting and comforting), but about the decisions you make at bedtime and throughout the day which support getting good sleep.
These best practices include:
- PAYING ATTENTION TO BEDTIMES AND TIME IN BED.
Research shows that students with the highest academic performance go to bed significantly earlier (and also rise earlier) than their lower-achieving peers. The students with the best grades also tend to take more naps than those with poor grades. Which kind of student do you want to be?
Other research points to a correlation between short sleep (less than 6 hours in a 24-hour period) and lower GPA. While a rare (and very small) percentage of people are known as “short sleepers” (meaning their circadian rhythms only require them to get up to 6 hours of sleep in order to remain functional and healthy), most people are not short sleepers. Those who think they are “short sleepers” are more likely just not getting enough sleep, and the results, at least for college students, can be seen in poor grades.
One solution, no matter how many hours you sleep, may be as simple as keeping a regular time slot for sleeping, however. Research shows that sleep regularity is more likely to result in higher academic achievement independent of the amount of actual sleep that takes place. In other words, assign yourself a nightly bedtime and rise time… and stick to it.
- AVOID ALCOHOL, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT
It may help you fall asleep, but it will disrupt your sleep as soon as the body metabolizes it, leading to a withdrawal effect that causes arousals in the middle of the night.
- BE SCREEN SAVVY.
Electronics at bedtime may be seen as a no-no, but laptops, cell phones, tablets, and other handheld devices are among the tools most likely to be used by students. It’s the exposure to blue-spectrum light that’s the problem, as well as the brightness of the light.
How to fix that? Wear blue-blocking “gamer’s glasses” while working on these devices. Or, install blue-blocking light filters on your devices; most are customizable and add a rosy hue to the screen based on your location’s sunrise/sunset timeframe, as well as reduce screen brightness.
If you learn better by listening, you might find tools that allow you to listen to lectures and slideshows with voiceovers rather than watch them.
Or work with paper, pencil, books, and others at nighttime study sessions and use your daytime hours for work that requires screens.
- EAT HEALTHY AND AT THE RIGHT TIME.
Carryout and pizza may seem like easy choices but heavy, salty, fatty foods (and treats like ice cream) aren’t going to help you in the classroom. Stick to lean proteins, fruits and vegetables you like, as well as pre-made dishes that are smart foods, such as sushi, vegan wraps, and simple soups and sandwiches.
And don’t eat too late! Allow at least 2 hours between your last meal and bedtime so your circadian system can properly settle into digestion mode. If you’re hungry at bedtime, have a light snack.
- BE SMART ABOUT CAFFEINE.
If you need to use some in the morning, alternate it with glasses of water to prevent that mid-afternoon slump.
Also, don’t consume caffeine any time after 3pm, as it will remain in your bloodstream well into your sleep period if you don’t, and that can mean insomnia or awakenings from caffeine withdrawal.
- KEEP THINGS DARK AND QUIET.
Use light blocking shades or eye masks and earplugs or white noise to reduce environmental disruptions. Dorms can be noisy places with lots of sensory overload. And young people can be loud snorers and sleep talkers, too! Help yourself however you can.
- FOLLOW DORM RULES REGARDING QUIET TIME.
These rules exist for a reason. Also, make sure you make an arrangement with your roommate to respect normal sleep hours (this is best done at the beginning of the year).
- USE YOUR BED ONLY FOR SLEEP AND INTIMATE RELATIONS.
Your bed is meant to be a place of rest and not a place to watch TV, study, eat, or socialize. Granted, this can be hard to achieve in dorms, but dorm buildings offer plenty of common area spaces you can use for these kinds of activities.
You’ll also get out of your dorm more often, which is good for your overall mental health and well being. Depression and anxiety can also interfere with learning. Don’t forget, the library is a great play to get things done!
- MAKE YOUR BED.
It’s not just something your mom demands, it’s about keeping your sleeping space stress-free and tidy.
That means keeping your dorm room tidy as well. More clutter means an unhealthy space you don’t want to be in. This kind of stress can keep you up at night! You don’t have to be neat as a pin, but you should aim to put everything in its place at the end of every day.
A made bed is also so much nicer to climb inside after a long day.
- TAKE NAPS.
Look into nap pods on campus. Getting as much sleep as you can, even during the day, will help recharge both the brain and the body.
TIP: A coffee nap prior to a study session can be an excellent way to achieve refreshment. Here’s how to do that:
- drink a normal sized cup of coffee within a 5-minute period
- set a timer on your cell phone or alarm clock for 30 minutes
- nap, or try to nap (even if you don’t sleep but quiet your mind, this will work)
- Once 30 minutes have passed, rise and go about your day. The odds are really good you’ll feel perked up and have a clear mind.
- MAKE UP FOR LOST SLEEP.
Pay down your sleep debt on the weekends and on days that aren’t booked with morning classes… but don’t exceed 9 to 10 hours of total sleep, as this can actually give you an undesirable circadian reset on Monday morning. When this happens, you’ll experience something known as social jet lag, which makes it harder to get up and be alert in class if you have early morning classes at the beginning of the week. If that includes your finals schedule, sleep 8 hours on the nights prior to the early morning test periods and nap in the middle of the days prior so you can maintain adequate sleep.
- EXERCISE IN THE MORNING BEFORE YOU GO TO CLASS.
Ideally, do this outside. It could be a bike ride, a brisk walk, yoga or pilates on the lawn. The exposure to natural light combined with the exercise will reinforce healthy circadian rhythms.
If you do this, expect to feel ready for bed at a decent hour, and honor that drive to sleep as well. Your brain will thank you!
Also, try to instill this habit early into the term; starting a new exercise regime on the week before finals is probably not going to be helpful as it will be yet another time-consuming project rather than a daily habit, and that can lead to stress and poor time management as well.
- PUT AWAY THE DISTRACTIONS.
Finals week is a finite period of one to two weeks. Challenge yourself to put aside on-demand TV, podcasts, video games, and other forms of media that you might otherwise binge or spend too much free time enjoying during this time. Save them up for after your tests are done.
Not only will you free up more time for studying, you’ll probably sleep better and the reduction in intellectual “noise” coming from entertainment media will free up your brain space for the facts, figures, ideas, theories, and formulas you actually need to know during this short period of time.
Still need help? Ask a counselor for options, teachers for extensions, doctors for ongoing sleep problems. They are becoming increasingly aware of sleep issues among college students and may have solutions to your problems that are unique to your campus or situation.