Sleep is a natural, everyday and seemingly simple phenomenon. Yet a variety of environmental factors can prevent people from getting the sleep they need at night. Among college students, researchers are finding some frightening causes and effects of habitual sleep loss. 

Sarah Van Orman, the executive director of University Health Services at the University of Wisconsin, said she feels that, for many higher education students, college can become “the perfect storm for sleep deprivation.” 

A recent study by the American College Health Association found that about a quarter of college students nationwide are not getting enough sleep. At UW, that number is slightly higher: More than half of UW students are sleep-deprived to a certain degree. 

“It’s pretty significant,” Van Orman said about the issue. A UHS survey sent out by email in the spring of 2011 “suggests most students are sleep-deprived at least on some days of the week,” she said. 

The survey asked students the number of nights per week they got adequate sleep. “Adequate sleep” was determined by whether the student reported feeling well-rested in the morning, rather than by a set number of hours. Only six percent reported having a positive sleep experience for every day of the week. 

In addition to keeping track of the well-rested feeling, Van Orman said college students should self-monitor their sleeping habits based on how long it usually takes them to fall asleep – a period of time called sleep latency. While it might feel great to hit the pillow and immediately fall asleep after a long day of classes, this is actually a sign of poor sleep health. 

“[Sleep deprivation] affects everybody differently,” Van Orman said. “When people fall asleep in less than five minutes, that’s severe. You should normally fall asleep within 15 minutes.” 

In terms of why students are falling so short of the necessary sleep requirements – a minimum of eight hours for 20-somethings – it is possible to chalk up these deficiencies to two main causes: environmental and self-inflicted sleep prevention. In short, the way students live and their choices are starving them of sleep. 

Scientists calls the way people sleep and their habits “sleep hygiene.” While schools from elementary on up often focus on bodily hygiene, some college students are falling short when it comes to understanding and maintaining their own sleep hygiene. 

Some of this can be blamed on social norms. Van Orman speculates that Americans perceive lack of sleep as a status symbol. People may perceive that high-powered CEOs regularly run on five hours of sleep or less, and want to emulate that practice, thinking they will achieve more throughout the day. Also, people in general believe they can “catch up” on sleep, another myth, she said.

College students get an average of only six hours of sleep on weeknights and 12 on weekends. This erratic pattern can take a toll on students’ well-being, especially when coffee and high-caffeine energy drinks are added to the mix. 

Van Orman added that even small amounts of alcohol, a frequent presence in college life, can affect sleep. Although students may feel drowsy and ready for sleep after drinking, alcohol actually has a way of energizing the body after a few hours, interrupting the sleep cycle. 

“Alcohol is really interesting because [it makes] people go to sleep, but then when the alcohol level in the blood drops after about five hours, it actually causes what we call ‘paradoxical excitement,'” Van Orman said. “Many students describe this – they drink a lot and pass out, then they wake up at four in the morning. That’s a bad night of sleep. You will not go through a full sleep cycle.” 

Even when a college student has the opportunity for a good night’s sleep, they may still be interrupted by a roommate or noisy neighbor. This type of occurrence can be inevitable in shared living spaces such as residence halls and apartments. 

Furthermore, in this modern age, the use of certain electronic devices – all too common in college students’ daily lives – has been found to hinder the sleep process. The light emitted from phone, TV, tablet and laptop screens is known as “blue light.” Too much blue light before bed prevents a successful shut-down of body and mind. The interruption of a bleeping text message notification is doubly unhelpful. 

“If I could give students a word of advice, it’s to put your phone way on the other side of the room,” Van Orman said. 

Aside from their surroundings and day-to-day demands keeping students awake, freshmen and sophomore students may also find that their own bodies are actually working against them. Adolescents need more sleep than children and adults – 10 hours at least – and we often see them falling into a pattern of going to bed later and sleeping in. Van Orman said this natural human behavior is called “the delayed sleep phase,” which some students have not shaken off by the time they get to college. Considering that incoming freshman are typically between 17 and 19 years of age, this should come as no surprise.

“Adolescent sleep patterns are still at work for many college students,” Van Orman said. “So many students still need more sleep and still have that delayed sleep phase, which is a problem when you have eight o’clock classes.” 

Moreover, sleep deficiency is known to cause memory problems. There are different “stages” throughout a night of sleep. Mayo Clinic describes roughly four stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep that last five to 15 minutes each. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is when dreams usually occur, and typically comes after the NREM stages for a short period of time. While certain stages of sleep are used for regenerating brain cells, the final stages are when new memories are formed, Van Orman said. Sleep is necessary for memory formation, especially the last few hours of sleep, she added. 

A student who is getting six hours or less a night, therefore, risks interfering with this process. To prevent this, college students should cram for tests during daylight hours to preserve crucial sleeping time the night before an exam. 

“We know people who are waking up after six hours, routinely, are missing the part of sleep that is really consolidating memories,” Van Orman said. “There are studies that show students who get less sleep have lower GPAs and poorer academic performance.” 

A sleep-deprived brain will even go to sleep for short periods of the day while the person appears to be awake and functioning, Van Orman described. These are called “microsleeps.” Microsleeps impair hearing, vision and processing of new information. One can imagine the attention and retention problems this causes when microsleeps occur in a lecture hall. 

“In a brain wave study, you will actually see the brain going to sleep while [research participants] are awake,” Van Orman said. “People will miss what is going on even though they seem to be awake.” 

This inability to process information quickly leads to mistakes – even accident and injury in everyday tasks like cooking and biking.
Van Orman added the leading cause of death for people with sleep apnea is car accidents because they are sleep deprived. “Monitor on Psychology,” a monthly magazine from the American Psychological Association, reports that young drivers are responsible for more than half of the 100,000 traffic accidents caused by drowsy driving each year. 

“We think about drunk driving, but we don’t really think about drowsy driving,” Van Orman said. This may resonate with college students that have cars on campus, or even student bikers. “If you put people who have been up all night in a driving simulator, they drive like someone who is legally intoxicated.” 

In the long term, lack of sleep can affect hormones and metabolism to cause obesity or diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It can also lead to hypertension or high blood pressure. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are closely linked to with sleep problems as well, Van Orman said. 

She calls the effects of chronic sleep deprivation “pretty profound.” 

“Nationally it’s interesting: The average person slept nine to 10 hours at the turn of the century, but the average American now sleeps six to seven,” she said. “I think the more we learn about chronic sleep deprivation, the more we are going to determine that it leads to a lot of problems.”