A 2022 sleep survey conducted on university students by My Student Halls outlined an endemic problem in the UK. The survey found that 19% of university students in the UK had an average sleep time of less than five hours each night, and 46% of the participants rated their sleep as fairly-bad or bad. When NHS England conducted their sleep survey after the pandemic, it revealed that most adults aged 17 – 23 suffered sleep-related problems three or more days a week.
Why Is Sleep Important for Students
There are many reasons why sleep is important for students. The relationship between sleep deprivation and stress is a constantly self-perpetuating cycle for students, with students not getting the sleep they need due to stress and the lack of sleep contributing to stress. Breaking the stress-sleep deprivation cycle is difficult, but it is not impossible. Many students believe they can take their sleepless nights in their stride while they are young and have the energy to do so. Yet, there are even more worrying ramifications than stress if you account for the physiological conditions that a lack of sleep can trigger, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Furthermore, diminished attention spans and alertness from a lack of regular sleep can also impede students’ academic performance, in addition to leading to the onset of daytime fatigue and decreased mood regulation. The academic performance of long and short-sleepers has also been measured. A recent survey of American students proved that shorter sleepers had a Grade Point Average of 2.74, while longer sleepers had a far higher-Grade Point Average of 3.24.
Why Sleep Deprivation is Endemic in Students
If you spend enough time on a university campus, it won’t be long before you hear one of your peers proclaiming that they pulled an all-nighter to finish an essay at the last minute, to study for an exam, or to enjoy the nightlife. While habits such as these can quickly become normalised amongst classmates, sleep deprivation can significantly impact the mental health of university students and should not be taken so light-heartedly – especially when more university students are reporting mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress.
It is also common for some people who consistently compromise on their sleep to claim that they function better with less than the recommended amount of sleep. This claim is disproven by the sleep expert Matthew Walker, who found that we have evolved to need a certain amount of sleep. When we drop below seven hours of sleep, objective impairments in cognitive performance and physical function decline.
Of course, insomnia can get in the way of getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep that every adult between the ages of 18 and 64 needs. If this is the case for you, the tips on improving sleep quality outlined in this article will help you towards your goals of longer and better sleep.
Excluding sleep disorders, such as insomnia, reasons for sleep deprivation amongst students fall into the following four categories:
- Lifestyle Factors – excessive alcohol, stimulants, poor eating habits, and heavy use of technology, such as laptops, TVs, game consoles and smartphones, before bed.
- Social Factors – homesickness, anxiety around academic performance or social skills, peer pressure, and poor sleep hygiene.
- Mental Health Factors – chronic stress, generalised anxiety disorder and depression.
- Physical Factors – pain, fatigue, or side effects from prescribed medication, including SSRIs or steroids.
The cost-of-living crisis in the UK is also exacerbating the endemic of sleep deprivation amongst students. A recent survey highlighted that 44% of undergraduate participants were kept awake at night by their financial worries. The rate of students believing that general stress affects their sleep quality is almost double at 76%.
How Students Can Improve Their Sleep Quality
As we have previously covered, there are many different reasons why students struggle to get to sleep and achieve the minimum requirement of seven hours regularly. Lifestyle factors can be relatively easy to overcome, whereas mental, social, financial, and physical reasons can be much harder to remedy through self-care or good sleep hygiene. Nevertheless, considering a few points that help to reduce fatigue and lead to better sleep quality can’t hurt to try.
Limiting Caffeine Intake
Making your caffeine cut-off-point six hours before you go to bed can drastically improve your chances of falling asleep earlier. Even small amounts of caffeine can block the sleep-promoting chemical, Adenosine, produced through waking hours; the longer we are awake, the more it builds up. However, with caffeine in the way of the chemical, we remain alert – sometimes regardless of how long we have been awake. Avoid coffee, energy drinks, caffeinated teas and soft drinks, and anything with chocolate as an ingredient in the early evening to allow Adenosine to build up. Trying alternatives such as chamomile tea or Ashwagandha tea can have the opposite effect and promote sleep.
Stick to a Sleep Routine
Stanford University neurobiologist Andrew Huberman warns against sleep routines that have a large amount of variation. For example, if you sleep for five hours through the week and catch up on your sleep for 12 hours at the weekend, this can do more harm than good in the long run; it is detrimental to cognitive performance. Where possible, always make the differences in your sleep routine minimal.
Sleeping too late and waking up in the afternoon can be just as detrimental to your overall health. Generally, students who fall asleep later are more prone to leading a sedentary lifestyle with a diet that revolves around late-night snacking. For this reason, night owls are far more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues compared to the early birds, who maximise their daylight hours and are more active during the day.
Turn Off the Bright Lights
Bright lights in the evenings don’t just ruin the ambience; they can also inhibit the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep and helps the timing of the circadian rhythm. Light can also prevent the body from moving into a parasympathetic state, which turns off the fight or flight response and reduces heart rate and respiration. While preparing to sleep, keep the lights as dim as possible, and when you are ready to close your eyes, ensure that all of your screened electronic devices are off and your bedroom is light-tight as possible.
90% of studies conducted on screen time one hour before bed concluded that there is an association between screen time and diminished sleep. Getting out of the habit of checking your phone, watching TV or using your laptop may be difficult, but your healthier sleep routine will thank you for it. To pass the time before you go to sleep, try journaling in a notebook, reading a paperback book, taking a short walk, meditating without using a screen, writing a to-do list for the next day or indulging in a self-care nighttime ritual.
Set One Alarm and Stick to It
This tip won’t help you sleep, but it can help you to start the day the right way. While the idea of 10 or 15 extra minutes when you wake up tired is incredibly appealing – especially when it is cold outside the confines of your bed; in the long run, it can lead to negative effects on cognition and mood. Every time you hit snooze on your alarm, you add more interrupted sleep to your cycle. Rather than helping you to feel refreshed, it has the opposite effect. Similarly, taking a long nap without an alarm may seem like a great idea so that you can wake up restful and productive afterwards. Yet, long and frequent naps can lead to slower mental performance, a dysfunctional sleep pattern, and even health issues further down the line. If you intend to take a nap, limit it to less than half an hour.
Try a Guided Sleep Meditation
While generally, using a screen an hour before you go to bed is not recommended, the exception can be for turning on a guided sleep meditation session provided by an app, or a free-to-use service, such as YouTube. As one of the primary reasons students can drift off to sleep is stress, reducing stressful thoughts when your head hits the pillow can help you drift off soundly. By monitoring your state of mind and positively influencing it, you will also reduce the temptation to reach for your phone or find another way to distract yourself from ruminative thoughts. If you are not fond of meditation or find the guided sleep meditation sessions unhelpful, you can always opt for an ambient playlist or one of the sleep stories found on mental health apps, such as Headspace, Aura or Calm.
The information outlined in this article is not intended to replace the advice from a medical health professional. If your sleep issues have started to affect your mental and physical health, reach out for additional support. If you are worried about how insomnia or a lack of sleep affects your academic performance during your time at UWS London, contact the student wellbeing services, which can signpost to additional support and guidance.