WESTCHESTER, Ill. With the semester drawing to a close, millions of college students are preparing to take their final exams. Unfortunately, research is increasingly showing that more and more students are not getting enough sleep, which can have a negative impact on their grades. Among the reasons for these changes in sleeping patterns are increased part-time working hours, pulling all-nighters to finish a paper or cram for an exam, and watching television at bedtime. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the best way to maximize performance on final exams is to both study and get a good night of sleep.

Lawrence Epstein, MD, medical director of Sleep HealthCenters in Brighton, Mass., an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, a past president of the AASM and a member of the AASM board of directors, says that sleep deprivation effects not only whether a student can stay awake in class but how they perform as well.

“Recent studies have shown that adequate sleep is essential to feeling awake and alert, maintaining good health and working at peak performance,” says Dr. Epstein. “After two weeks of sleeping six hours or less a night, students feel as bad and perform as poorly as someone who has gone without sleep for 48 hours. New research also highlights the importance of sleep in learning and memory. Students getting adequate amounts of sleep performed better on memory and motor tasks than did students deprived of sleep.”

Clete A. Kushida, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical Center, an attending physician at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, director of the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research and a member of the AASM board of directors, notes that the degree of daytime alertness is arguably the most sensitive measure as to how much sleep is necessary for the specific individual.

“If the individual is routinely tired or sleepy during the daytime, odds are that he or she is not getting enough sleep,” says Dr. Kushida. “To take it one step further, there are two primary factors that affect the degree of daytime alertness: sleep quantity and sleep quality. For the student-age population, sleep quantity and quality issues are both important. However, key factors affecting sleep quality, such as the major sleep disorders (e.g., obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome), are less prevalent in this age group compared to middle-aged or older individuals.”

Dr. Kushida adds that the importance of obtaining adequate sleep in the student-age population cannot be overemphasized.

“There are data that sleep loss leads to learning and memory impairment, as well as decreased attention and vigilance,” says Dr. Kushida. “In the student-age population, studies have found that factors such as self-reported shortened sleep time, erratic sleep/wake schedules, late bed and rise times, and poor sleep quality have been found to be negatively associated with school performance for adolescents from middle school through college. Thus, there is ample evidence to indicate that the lack of adequate nighttime sleep can lead to disturbances in brain function, which in turn, can lead to poor academic performance.”

Other recent studies outline the adverse effects of poor sleep among students with regards to their success in school:

  • Sleepiness and poor sleep quality are prevalent among university students, affecting their academic performance and daytime functioning.
  • Students with symptoms of sleep disorders are more likely to receive poor grades in classes such as math, reading and writing than peers without symptoms of sleep disorders.
  • College students with insomnia have significantly more mental health problems than college students without insomnia.
  • College students with medical-related majors are more likely to have poorer quality of sleep in comparison to those with a humanities major.
  • College students who pull “all-nighters” are more likely to have a lower GPA.
  • Students who stay up late on school nights and make up for it by sleeping late on weekends are more likely to perform poorly in the classroom. This is because, on weekends, they are waking up at a time that is later than their internal body clock expects. The fact that their clock must get used to a new routine may affect their ability to be awake early for school at the beginning of the week when they revert back to their new routine.

The following tips are provided by the AASM to help students learn how to get enough sleep:

Go to bed early

Students should go to bed early enough to have the opportunity for a full night of sleep. Adults need about seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Get out of bed

If you have trouble falling asleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.

Stay out of bed

Don’t study, read, watch TV or talk on the phone in bed. Only use your bed for sleep.

Limit naps

If you take a nap, then keep it brief. Nap for less than an hour and before 3 p.m.

Wake up on the weekend

It is best to go to bed and wake up at the same times on the weekend as you do during the schoolweek. If you missed out on a lot of sleep during the week, then you can try to catch up on the weekend. But sleeping in later on Saturdays and Sundays will make it very hard for you to wake up for classes on Monday morning.

Avoid caffeine

Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and at night. It stays in your system for hours and can make it hard for you to fall asleep.

Adjust the lights

Dim the lights in the evening and at night so your body knows it will soon be time to sleep. Let in the sunlight in the morning to boost your alertness.

Wind down

Take some time to “wind down” before going to bed. Get away from the computer, turn off the TV and the cell phone, and relax quietly for 15 to 30 minutes.

Eat a little

Never eat a large meal right before bedtime. Enjoy a healthy snack or light dessert so you don’t go to bed hungry.

Those who believe they have a sleep disorder should consult with their primary care physician or a sleep specialist.

Sleep Education, a patient education website created by the AASM, provides information about various sleep disorders, the forms of treatment available, recent news on the topic of sleep, sleep studies that have been conducted and a listing of sleep facilities.

AASM is a professional membership organization dedicated to the advancement of sleep medicine and sleep-related research.

To arrange an interview with an AASM spokesperson, please contact media@aasm.org.

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Updated Nov. 6, 2017