Continuing the Conversation: The Science and Debate about Sleep

By Anne Figert and Neil Baum

Editor’s Note: This is the second Continuing the Conversation piece by Figert and Baum. In this special on going collaborative series, Figert and Baum enter into a conversation about mental health challenges we face at Jesuit colleges and universities. How much sleep do our students need to function well? How can we consider this from a medical point of view and the view of the professor teaching the class?

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Dr. Neil Baum, M.D: There is inconvertible proof that loss of sleep has a negative impact on students’ grades as well as increase the level of anxiety both in and out of the classroom. It wasn’t but a few decades ago that students regularly kept “all-nighters” cramming for an exam.  There’s no better way to put your GPA in the tank than staying up all night or being sleep deprived which is a chronic problem on American campuses. 

Chronic sleep deprivation is just as problematic as short bursts of lack of sleep.  There is evidence that after two weeks of sleeping six hours or less a night, students feel as bad and perform as poorly as someone who has gone without sleep for 48 hours. New research also highlights the importance of sleep in learning and memory. Students getting adequate amounts of sleep performed better on memory and motor tasks than did students deprived of sleep.  There is ample evidence to indicate that the lack of adequate sleep can lead to disturbances in brain function, which in turn, can lead to poor academic performance.

You can’t fool the sleep fairy or your internal clock!  Students who stay up late during the week and attempt to make up for it by sleeping late on weekends are more likely to perform poorly in the classroom. This is because, on weekends, they are waking up at a time that is later than their internal body clock expects. The fact that their clock must get used to a new routine may affect their ability to be awake early for school at the beginning of the week when they revert back to their new routine.

Here’s a few tips for good sleep hygiene that may help you obtain that necessary slumber:

Students should go to bed early enough to have the opportunity for a full night of sleep which ideally is seven to eight hours a night.  Remember your bed is for sleeping and not for studying, reading, TV, or iPhone conversations. If you have trouble falling asleep:

  • Get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.

  • Take an afternoon nap if you keep it short, 30-45 minutes.

  • Try retiring and waking up at the same time even on the weekend as well as during the week. (Now I know this is a difficult suggestion for fellow Loyola students to follow!)

  • Go slow on the “joe”, i.e., caffeine. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and at night. It stays in your system for several hours and can make it hard for you to fall asleep.

  • Screen off! Get away from the computer; turn off the TV and the cell phone at least an hour before retiring.

  • Exercise regularly but not 1-2 hours before you going to bed.

  • Drinking warm milk before bedtime has been considered a remedy as a sleep aid. Sleep experts were of the opinion that the tryptophan in milk was the sleep inducer. Studies have confirmed that tryptophan (which is reason given why so many of us drop like flies after a heavy meal of tryptophan-rich turkey on Thanksgiving Day) is not the likely explanation for sleep induction following a glass of warm milk. It is more likely that the routine of drinking a glass of warm milk is like the old teddy bear or blanket that reminds you of your childhood when your one of your parents tucked you into bed at night. The psychological association with milk and the security of having your parents giving you a good night kiss is stronger than the medicinal effect of tryptophan as you would need to consume huge volumes of milk to receive the quantity of tryptophan to bring on the zzzzzz’s.

  • Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the brain that is often taken in a pill form. Melatonin is available as an over-the-counter supplement to aid sleep. Melatonin is quite safe and is not habit-forming, and you will not become "addicted" or dependent upon it. Therefore, if you find it to be helpful in improving your sleep, you may use it on a nightly basis without fear of adverse consequences. The melatonin dose may range from 1mg up to 10mg. I suggest starting with 1mg for several days and slowly increase the dose to a maximum of 10mg if the lower starting dose is ineffective.

Bottom Line:  There are major types of sleep disorders that are beyond the scope of this article which include: obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome but these disorders are less prevalent in college age students.  Try a few of these suggestions and you will have better grades and more sleep.

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Dr. Anne Figert: Neil, you are a physician so you can recommend these things. From a professor’s point of view, I see students who fall asleep in class, yawn, and look exhausted. I can recommend that they should get more sleep but in many ways your recommendations are great but may not fit the life of most college students.

Yes, they should get more sleep and yes they should keep a separate space for studying versus sleeping. BUT, if a traditional age student lives in the dorm, then it is likely that their bed is their desk, kitchen table and sleep area. For these young adults, it is quite difficult to put yourself into a good sleep routine when you are in charge of yourself for maybe the first time in your life.

For  the non-traditional age students, sleep is just one of their deficits that they are running. I have students who have worked an overnight shift and then came to class. I have students who were up all night with a sick child or parent.  I can’t get upset if they happen to fall asleep. I am just glad that they made it to class.

As a medical sociologist, I can teach about stress and cortisol and other hormones involved in the social disparities of health and illness. It’s another thing when I see how and why my students are stressed. Humans are not machines and sometimes it is hard to follow doctor’s orders or to get more sleep. It doesn’t mean that it is impossible, it just means that like a lot of things in life, it is hard: harder for some people and not others and even when it is logical, it is hard to do.

I can tell my students to spread out their study and get a good night’s sleep before the impending test/quiz but that is not the realities of their lives. This applies to faculty and staff also...we all live complicated lives. Some of things that I am trying to do to get more sleep involve:

  • Listening to podcasts or books on tape that I have already read before bedtime. Not being surprised by something is better for me.

  • Watching cooking shows … I am a vicarious baker. I love to watch other people bake.

  • Not watching politics or sporting events after 9pm. I love to watch sports but I can’t take exciting games before bedtime.

Coming Soon: In our next blog, we will discuss Jonathan Metzl’s new book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America's Heartland. How might understanding our political reality help our students understand the work for racial justice both within our university communities and as leaders for just worlds?

Anne Figert is a professor and chair of the sociology department at Loyola University Chicago. Neil Baum is retired physician and current student at Loyola University New Orleans.