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You’re familiar with the eight-hour rule. Actually getting eight full hours of shut-eye, however? It’s tricky to prioritize sleep when you’re juggling things like a crazy class schedule, work, and a social life.

Getting more sleep, however, can actually help make all those things easier to manage. Take the age-old dilemma: Should you study for a few more hours before your final or rest up before the test? Sleep has major brain benefits, including helping to improve your memory. So trading the flash cards for your pillow might actually do more to boost your grade.

Here’s the case in favour of getting more zzzs:

Sleeping away sickness

You’re not dreaming—you really will feel an amazing difference in your body when you let it reenergize. Researchers consistently find that getting insufficient sleep prevents the immune system from functioning at its best. A 2012 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found a significant difference in immune response in those who slept four to six hours compared to those who slept seven to nine hours.

Getting consistent sleep is key. In a 2017 study among twins, researchers found that “chronic short sleep,” defined as regularly getting less than seven hours, shuts down certain immune responses. In other words, if you’re exposed to a virus when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to get sick than if you were doing more slumbering.

“I’m someone who always, no matter what, tries to get my required amount of sleep,” says Tania M., a student at Ryerson University in Ontario. “There was [a] time when I would stay awake all week, pulling all-nighters or only sleeping for a couple [of] hours, and I actually got really sick.”

sick woman on couch

Sleep and the scale

Lack of sleep has a major effect on the regulation of hormones and other physiological processes. The effects aren’t always immediate or obvious, but there’s a lot going on within your body when you deprive it of the sleep it craves.

“Chronic sleep loss affects the [body’s] ability to perform basic metabolic functions like regulating hormone secretions and storing carbohydrates,” says Ilya Dumov, Director and Operational Manager of York Region Sleep Disorders Centre.

The endocrine system is responsible for managing your hormones, and can be associated with increased weight gain.

The part of your brain that controls these functions—the hypothalamus—needs sleep for regulation and to keep your weight in check. When you haven’t gotten much sleep, you’re also more likely to crave less nutritious foods that will provide a quick shot of energy, such as sugary snacks. Plus, your body can’t fully reap the benefits of regular physical activity if you’re not getting consistent, deep sleep. In other words, sleep is key when it comes to helping you maintain a healthy weight.

“If I don’t sleep well, I’m not able to handle things calmly. I’m way more irritable and quick to anger, and worse, my eating habits are poor because I’m craving sugar,” says Aaron P.*, a third-year undergraduate at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario.

Sleep and stress

This might come as no surprise, but sleep has a major impact on our mood (just think about all the times you’ve gone through the day grumpy because you didn’t get enough shut-eye).

“Before school, I was getting four to six hours [of sleep] a night, working six days a week, full and part time. I was always tired and sluggish, and felt negative about most things,” says Jessica M., a second-year student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. “Now that I’m in school and don’t go to work at 7 a.m. every morning and then another job after, I feel a lot better and more positive. It has actually improved my mental health.”

Specifically, sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol—a huge reason we feel out of whack when we don’t get enough shut-eye. That can turn into a vicious cycle. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, more than a third of US young folks reported stress was keeping them up at night.

Bad sleep = bad focus

Getting more sleep can help you focus better in class so you can spend less time reviewing the material later in the library. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, respondents stated that they feel groggy and sluggish, and also have difficulty concentrating, when they don’t get sufficient sleep.

“There are nights when I get only three to four hours [of] sleep, and then the next day I feel horrible at school,” says Cristol R., a student at the University of British Columbia. “I find it so much harder to concentrate compared to when I’m well rested.”

If you find yourself nodding off at your desk (it happens to the best of us), you’re obviously exhausted, but you might not realize how powerful your fatigue really is. “Acute sleep deprivation is often associated with episodes of ‘microsleep,’ or brief, uncontrollable periods of sleep lasting three to six seconds. [They can] intrude upon wake at inopportune times, such as during a lecture,” explains Dr. Michel Bornemann, Sleep Medicine Specialist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis.

It can also be more serious. “There are many studies and literature that state [sleepless] all-nighters can cause impairment in motor performance,” says Dumov. “When you’re driving after having extremely little or no sleep, being on the road is as dangerous as being behind the wheel intoxicated.”

Making sleep a priority

Even when you’re totally on board with the importance of sleep, getting enough is easier said than done. Follow these tips to score more sleep.

Reevaluate your to-do list.

If you can prioritize what needs to be done immediately and what can wait, you’ll get a bit more sleep. For example, do you need to call your best friend back home after you study, or can you save the call for your walk to class tomorrow?

Be mindful of time wasters during the day.

Track how much time you spend on social media for a day, including every Twitter break before class and every minute you spend on Snapchat and Instagram. It adds up. Think about how else you could use mindless scrolling time to be more productive during the day—and get more shut-eye at night.

Don’t check electronics after going to bed.

The blue light from your screen interferes with your body’s internal sleep clock, keeping you from drifting off. Plug your phone in to charge on the opposite side of your room to resist the temptation. 

Limit caffeine after 2 p.m.

“This is killer for some students, but limiting caffeine legitimately helped me. It’s sometimes frustrating not being able to have a glass of Coke with dinner, but I just had to take the time to build new habits,” says Elliece R., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

Get in the sleep zone or create a sleep routine.

Take a relaxing shower before bed, practise pre-snooze meditation, or read until you drift off. “If I can’t sleep, I’ll make myself herbal tea or do a variation of meditation/stretching to help relax my body,” says Kylie V., a third-year undergraduate at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario. Try a meditation app like Calm.

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Article sources

Michel Bornemann, MD, Lead Investigator, Sleep Forensics Associates and Physician at Olmsted Medical Center, Minnesota.

Ilya Dumov, Director and Operational Manager of York Region Sleep Disorders Centre.

American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress and sleep. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep.aspx
Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Waking up to sleep’s role in weight control. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/sleep-and- obesity/

Leproult, R., Copinschi, G., Buxton, O., & Van Cauter, E. (1997). Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep20(10), 865–870. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/20/10/865/2725962

National Sleep Foundation. (2012, November 9). Young people more likely to drive drowsy. Retrieved from https://drowsydriving.org/2012/11/young-people-more-likely-to-drive-drowsy/

RCMP (2017). Distracted Driving. Retrieved from https://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cycp-cpcj/dd-dv/index-eng.htm

Tavernier, R. & Willoughby, T. (2104). Bidirectional associations between sleep (quality and duration) and psychosocial functioning across the university years. Dev Psychol. 50(3):674-82. doi: 10.1037/a0034258.

Watson, N. F., Buchwald, D., Delrow, J. J., Altemeier, W. A., et al. (2017). Transcriptional signatures of sleep duration discordance in monozygotic twins. Sleep, 40(1). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsw019

Wright Jr., K. P., Drake, A. L., Frey, D. J., Fleshner, M., et al. (2015). Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol, inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity47, 24–34.