"Yeah, I pulled an all-nighter for the second time this week," someone would semi-brag.
"I got 2 hours last night, 3 hours the night before, and 2 hours the night before that. Which means I've slept 7 hours in 3 days!" someone else would marvel.
I was never someone who stayed up all night to study for an exam or write a paper, but I did suffer from relentless insomnia from years. I didn't realize at the time that the inability to sleep actually indicates your body is overtired.
Still, skipping sleep even trickles down to the high school culture, which is not just a shame, but an enormous mistake when considering optimal learning environments and studying habits for young adults.
See, sleep actually does a lot for us. So why do I tell students it's better to close the book and go to bed knowing what you know than to stay up all night reviewing?
If your parents wonder why you started hibernating once you hit junior high, they might be interested to know that young adults, while wired to stay up later, need more hours of sleep overall.
Unfortunately, classes for high school and college students are scheduled for the convenience of an adult's workday - meaning that while your professor is chipper and alert for your 8:00 am Statistics course, the students would probably benefit from a start time closer to 10.
If you can't change the system, you can change how much sleep you're getting by making it a priority to go to bed earlier or to schedule in a brief nap or two during your day.
Sleep Deprivation Has Similar Effects To Intoxication
While researches don't always agree to what extent sleep deprivation mimics the effects of alcohol intoxication, they do find that extended sleep deprivation does compromise an individual's cognitive and motor skills.
This means that if you drive to campus after not sleeping for 24 hours, you're taking a risk. You might fall asleep at the wheel, find yourself more easily distracted and unable to concentrate, and experience slower reaction times.
While pulling an all-nighter to study is NOT the same as staying up all night drinking, please be mindful that you might have delayed mental and bodily responses when you aren't getting enough sleep.
The Body Repairs Itself During Sleep
There are physiological changes to our bodies during sleep.
You know that person on campus who always seems to be fighting a cold, complains about aches and pains, and just never seems to feel well?
Barring he does not have some kind of actual chronic condition, what he really might be suffering from is lack of sleep.
Professional athletes take sleep seriously for a reason - it's a time for their bodies to heal, at both the macro and microscopic levels, from the physical trauma they experienced during the day's training.
Our bodies digestive systems also "reset" during sleep. So you might experience gastrointestinal issues after staying up too late for even a single night. And if you have ongoing stomach problems, you might want to look at how much sleep you're getting, versus how much your body actually needs.
Learning Depends on Enough Sleep
Sleep's relationship to your ability to learn is twofold. First, you need sleep to be able to concentrate while in class, doing homework, and reading. Second, sleep helps transfer this new information to your memory, so that you can later recall it.
A person who is not getting enough sleep might find it difficult to perform well on her exam the next morning, even if she stayed up all night studying for it, because the mind didn't get the rest it needed to convert what she learned to memory.
Additionally, sleep deprivation over a sustained period of time can tank anyone's mood. Anxiety, depression, and restlessness can all inhibit your academic performance.
Sleeping Meds Are a Band-Aid, Not a Long-Term Solution
I mentioned above that I suffered from insomnia for years. Sometimes I would go for a full 2-3 days without sleeping more than a handful of semi-conscious hours. Although I am someone who normally shuns medicine (i.e. I will have a headache instead of taking some Tylenol), when someone enthusiastically recommended an over-the-counter sleep aid, I decided to give it a shot.
Please know that even the OTC doesn't always mean safe or effective. In the month or so that I used these somewhat habitually, they didn't always put me to sleep. And let me tell you, if I felt groggy after a sleepless night, I felt like an absolute zombie after a sleepless night with a sleeping aid still in my system.
My ability to metabolize medicine is significantly slower than the average person's. So while the commercials promise you will wake up refreshed after 8 hours of deep sleep, my reality was to take the medicine at 10 pm, and still feel out of it until 3 pm the next day.
My final straw was after the day where I walked out of my house, completely disoriented from the sleeping aid still in my system, and was almost run over by a car I didn't see or hear as I shuffled distractedly across the street. Then, during class, I kept forgetting what I was saying IN THE MIDDLE OF MY SENTENCE. It's pretty humiliating when your professor keeps you after class and asks if you're, y'know, ok? I told him I had taken a sleeping aid to help with my insomnia and he looked relieved. I think he genuinely suspected I was intoxicated before I explained why I was acting like I was off with the fairies in La-La Land.
So, yep, I through out the sleeping aids and started working on my sleep hygiene. It took a lot of conscious effort, but I was able to beat my insomnia by incorporating regular exercise and exposure to light during the day, preparing myself and my room for sleep at night, and sticking to a sleep schedule on both weekdays and weekends.
But I encourage you to not be swayed by the campus culture of less is more when it comes to sleep. It's not a contest. If you know you need 6 (or 7, or 10) hours to function, make it a priority.
Sleeping is one of the best ways to keep your body healthy, your mind primed for learning, your mood level, and to set yourself up for long-term academic success.