6 Reasons Students Can't Afford to Skimp on Sleep

While burning the candle at both ends seems to be a badge of honor for some, the effects of insufficient sleep are actually pretty wretched.  Lack of sleep can affect not only concentration and alertness, but also long-term health.  We all need our Zzzs, but a good night's sleep is especially vital for students. 

According to a report featured on Frontline on PBS, experts now think that teens might need even more sleep than younger children -- around 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours a night!  Of course, life tends to get in the way of sleep.  There's homework, sports, music, friends, and hopefully some time to relax and have fun.  A full eight or nine hours a night might be unrealistic, but if teens are getting 6 1/2 hours of sleep or less, they need to make some major adjustments to their schedules.      

Need some motivation to head to bed? These six preventable issues are all caused by lack of sleep!

1. Decreased Focus

You may know from experience that lack of sleep makes you feel like a zombie.  It's harder to pay attention in class, and you may have difficulty problem-solving or learning new concepts.

But did you know that some students are incorrectly labeled as having ADHD simply due to lack of sleep? According to the UCLA Sleep Center, the effects of insufficient sleep can mimic certain types of Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder.  The executive functioning parts of the brain -- the parts that prioritize what to focus on -- don't have enough juice to operate effectively.  Before you start treatment for ADHD -- especially any kind of medication -- make sure to rule out sleep deprivation as a possible cause of your difficulty staying on task. 

2. Impaired Memory

You may think of sleep as down-time, but while you snooze, your brain is active doing important maintenance.

Here's what WebMD has to say about the link between sleep and memory: (http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/10-results-sleep-loss)

In 2009, American and French researchers determined that brain events called ‘sharp wave ripples’ are responsible for consolidating memory. The ripples also transfer learned information from the hippocampus to the neocortex of the brain, where long-term memories are stored. Sharp wave ripples occur mostly during the deepest levels of sleep.

Even if you're able to pay attention in class with less sleep, you may not be storing what you learn in long-term memory.  That's like taking excellent notes and then losing them!

Your short-term memory can also be impaired by lack of sleep.  If you find yourself forgetting big assignments, misplacing items, or losing your focus on a regular basis, it's time to track how much sleep you're getting -- or not getting.

3. Lower Immunity

If you sleep less so you can get more done, you're going to be really disappointed to hear this next finding.  A preliminary study by a pharmaceutical company found that subjects who got less than seven hours of sleep a night for two weeks were three times as likely to get a cold when exposed to the common cold virus. A similar study showed a correlation between lack of sleep and lowered efficacy of the flu vaccination. (http://www.embriahealth.com/resources/healthlifestyle_reports/sleep-the-immune-system-and-the-common-cold/)


You might think one more hour of studying will better prepare you for your project or your finals.  But if you get a cold or the flu, you could be laid out for a few days or even a week! You'll lose all the edge you thought you were gaining. Even if you aren't down for the count, being sick will make you groggy and decrease your mental acuity!

4. Aggression and Mood Swings

Not getting enough sleep makes everyone grumpy.  Teen brains, though, are already under fire from natural developmental changes.  The influx of hormones alone can cause severe moods.  But when fatigue is thrown into the mix, the result can be violent changes in mood, including severe aggression.  

Having a short fuse, lashing out at friends or family, or finding that you have no tolerance for other people's input may be a warning sign that you need more sleep.  Mood swings are a natural part of changing hormones, but when those moods swing toward violent reactions, it's time to make a change in your schedule.

5. Depression

Depression is a serious and potentially debilitating condition. Inability to sleep may make people more prone to depression, and depression may also cause inability to sleep. The good news, though, according to WebMD, is that getting more sleep may help alleviate depression, just as addressing depression will help you get more sleep!  If you worry that you may be depressed, it's important to talk with a professional.  But you might be able to decrease some of the symptoms of depression by learning to relax before bedtime so that you can get enough good-quality sleep.

6. A Cycle of Bad Habits

When you haven't gotten enough sleep, your body and brain will crave something to give them a charge. Being tired makes most people reach for caffeine and sugar, both of which will give you a quick boost of energy, followed by a drop.  These stimulants (and others, like nicotine) actually deplete your supply of sustainable energy.  It's like a turbo boost for a car: you're going to see an increase in power immediately, but ultimately you're depleting your fuel supply.  

Worse, all three of these stimulants are highly addictive.  The more you have, the more your body will crave. (Studies with lab mice actually show that sugar is more addictive than cocaine! http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/sugar-is-it-as-addictive-as-cocaine/) But, your brain chemistry will also get used to them, and you'll find you need more and more for the desired "wide awake" feeling.  

And here's the worst part: lack of sleep impairs your judgment, especially about how much sleep you need! So the less sleep you get, the less you'll be able to see that lack of sleep is having dire effects!  Here's what sleep specialist Dr. Philip Gehrman of the University of Pennsylvania concluded:

Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation — they’ve gotten used to it. But if you look at how they actually do on tests of mental alertness and performance, they continue to go downhill. So there’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are

Sleep is not "for the weak".  And coffee or sugary snacks are not a replacement for sleep. Good sleep means good thinking, good focus, and good choices. Make getting enough sleep a priority.  Train yourself to quit working and go to bed.  Those few extra minutes of studying aren't helping you. They're actually preventing you from performing your best.