When you’re all revved up for the new semester, it’s easy to skip sleep in favour of diving into your new coursework. OK, it’s easy to skip sleep in favour of Insta-scrolling, Netflix-watching, nacho-eating, just about anything. If you find yourself going too far into the wee hours of the night too often, you can technically make up a few late nights by sleeping in for a few days—but you might still be racking up serious sleep debt.
“We all have an individual sleep need, that is, the amount of sleep you require each night to feel rested and function optimally during the day. If that daily sleep need isn’t met, a sleep debt accumulates,” says Dr. Kimberly Cote, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brock University in Ontario. Think of your sleep like a savings account, where the minimum balance has to be roughly eight hours a night (some of us might need more or less)—for every night you don’t put that amount in your sleep account, you accumulate overall sleep debt. And trust us, that can add up fast. Sleep debt is pretty common—70 percent of college and university students reported that they snag less than eight hours a night, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Not to mention, Canada is among the top three most sleep-deprived countries, according to a 2016 study by insurance provider Aviva.
Why does it matter? Not unlike managing your bank account, accumulating sleep debt can leave you feeling depleted. Lack of sleep can mess with:
Academic performance Students who are sleep deprived struggle more academically and are at a higher risk of failing compared with those who are getting enough rest on a consistent basis, says a 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep. Nearly a third of Canadian college and university students said sleep issues affect how they’re doing in class, according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (Canadian reference group, Fall 2016). “Lack of sleep leads to cognitive impairments—people don’t respond as quickly, tend to fall asleep during monotonous tasks, or have difficulty doing more complex tasks such as writing difficult papers,” says Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Director of Student Health Services at McGill University in Quebec.
In studies, sleep and GPA are related, but not necessarily in the ways you’d think. Consistent sleep and wake times may have more of a grade-boosting effect than logging more hours, according to a 2014 analysis of recent research in Nature and Science of Sleep. It’s not just about how long you’re sleeping, but how consistent your sleep schedule is (or isn’t). “Routine is the foundation of sleep; rise and retire at the same time daily,” says Dr. Katherine Rasmussen, Clinical Sleep Educator at the Centre for Sleep in Alberta.
Mood Female students who reported nightly sleep debts of two hours or more were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms than those with smaller debts, a 2010 study in Psychiatry Research found. What are depressive symptoms? They include everything from changes in appetite to lack of focus to blues you just can’t shake. (And this is a serious thing: If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, reach out to a friend, trusted professor, or a counsellor on your campus or in your community. Because help is out there, and you matter.)
Body Sleep debt affects your bod in a number of ways: It increases the production of your hunger hormones (while suppressing the hormones that tell you you’re full), raises levels of your stress hormones, and even messes with your body’s ability to use sugar effectively, according to a 2010 meta-analysis of studies in Pediatric Endocrinology.
Sleep debt can snowball fast. The more sleep deprived you are, the less likely you might be to notice. So how do you know—and how do you fix it?
How to tell if you’re in debt
The simplest way to tell if you’re racking up sleep debt is to do the math. If the average young adult needs eight hours of sleep each night and you get only six most days of the week, by the time Friday rolls around you’re 10 hours in debt.
In most cases, the ideal level of sleep needed to keep your balance in the black is individual, says Dr. Shelley Hershner, Director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic at the University of Michigan. The average person needs somewhere between seven and nine hours nightly, but “your absolute best judgment of whether you are getting enough sleep is if you can wake up at the time you’re supposed to without an alarm clock,” she says.
Here are some other signs you might be in sleep debt:
- You can’t sit through a lecture without getting drowsy or even nodding off.
- You fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow.
- You don’t wake up until the second your alarm goes off. (During a healthy night’s sleep, you should actually go through cycles of slight wakefulness.)
- You feel drowsy during downtime, like while reading or watching TV.
To figure out how much sleep you need, test your sleep limits during a break from school when you have a solid three to four weeks to sleep as much as you want, says Dr. Hershner. “For the first week or two, you’ll probably still be catching up, but by the third week, how much you’re sleeping should be a good indication of how much your body actually needs.”
How to get out of debt
Technically, you can “pay off” your sleep debt by making up those missed hours every weekend, but playing catch-up by sleeping your weekends away isn’t ideal, partially because you’ll throw off your sleep schedule for the following week. That contributes to—you guessed it—more sleep debt.
“When we sleep in for an extra three hours on the weekend, we cause a deregulation in our circadian rhythm—also called ‘social jet lag,’” says Dr. Rasmussen. “This makes it more difficult to rise for classes on Monday morning and can negatively impact academic performance.”
The most realistic way to get out of sleep debt is by preventing it in the first place. And the beginning of the year is the best time to do that. Here’s how:
15 minutes earlier to bed; 15 minutes later to rise
“Some students will need more than eight hours, and some will need less. It’s possible for people to get the sleep they need each night, but it might take some planning,” says Dr. Cote. If getting to bed an hour earlier every night seems about as likely as your professors cancelling lecture in favour of a class party, try to make small schedule changes like getting to bed 15 minutes earlier and streamlining your morning routine so you can sleep 15 minutes longer. You just clocked 30 more minutes.
Take one less social media break a day (Just. One.)
An easy way to score yourself those extra 15 minutes at night is to cut out one social media break during the day. We already know that tech use affects sleep, but interestingly enough, sleep also affects tech use: When you’re sleep deprived, you spend more time aimlessly scrolling on Facebook, suggests 2016 research from the University of California, Irvine. The higher your sleep balance, the more time you can bank toward an earlier bedtime.
Be strategic about your class schedule
Scheduling later classes, or ones that offer recorded video lectures, might be helpful if you tend to struggle with making early mornings work. “But this depends on your circadian rhythm and your lifestyle,” says Dr. Tellier. “If you work best at night and go to bed late on a regular basis, then it makes sense to schedule later classes. If, however, you’re early-to-bed and early-to-rise, later classes are only helpful if morning is your productive time.” So know yourself and adjust your timing accordingly.
Learn to love the nap
Studies show that students who take more naps do better in class. In a 2010 study in Sleep and Breathing, college and university students with GPAs of 3.5 and higher were much more likely to be nappers than were their peers with lower GPAs. Just make sure you don’t snooze longer than 20 minutes, says Dr. Cote. “Longer naps will lead to greater grogginess upon awakening and interfere with sleeping well at night.”
According to Dr. Cote, you want to try to prevent sleep debt by getting into good sleep habits—so it’s not great to fall back on the idea that you can make up all that lost sleep on the weekends. “Even one night of poor sleep has immediate consequences on the very next day, so you can’t avoid these risks by scheduling sleep for a future time,” Dr. Cote says.
Keep your tech at arm’s length
The blue light emitted from your laptop or phone suppresses your levels of melatonin, a hormone that affects your circadian rhythms, says Harvard Health Publications. And that isn’t a good thing for your sleep. If you’re not going to unplug entirely, at least switch on your phone’s blue light filter and don’t hold it so close to you, download a blue light-filtering app, or set your phone to night shift. “[Blue] light stimulates your brain to be awake,” says Dr. Cote.
Use your computer after class and books before bed
To cut out computer usage before bed, schedule your studying so you can get any computer work out of the way earlier in the evening and switch to books in the hour before bed. “Stopping computer use before bed will allow your eyes (and hence, your brain) to settle down to its regular pattern of functioning, leading to better quality of sleep on a more consistent basis,” says Dr. Tellier.
Track your Zs
Fitbit fan? The device can show you how much sleep you get (or don’t get). While wearable trackers aren’t always accurate, Dr. Hershner cautions, the idea behind tracking your sleep is solid if seeing your stats motivates you to stay on track. If you don’t use a wearable, explore other options that help you feel accomplished for getting a good night’s sleep, like keeping a sleep journal or using an app. We like Sleep Cycle alarm clock, and we think you might too.
Flip your phone
Ironically enough, the more you worry about getting into sleep debt, the harder it might be for you to fall asleep. To avoid the anxiety, don’t keep a clock within view, says Dr. Hershner. Turn your alarm clock so it faces away from you and flip your phone over and put it on airplane mode when you go to sleep.
Get in a Zen zone
“Relaxation practices are a good idea and help with sleep onset,” says Dr. Cote. To help you keep a consistent sleep schedule, make your bed into a relaxing sleep oasis. Close the books and download a meditation app to help quiet your mind before bed—just make sure you’re not taking the phone into your sleep zone.
Kimberly Cote, MSc, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Brock University, Ontario.
Shelley Hershner, MD, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic, University of Michigan.
Katherine Rasmussen, ND, BEd, BA, Clinical Sleep Educator, Centre for Sleep, Calgary, Alberta.
Pierre-Paul Tellier, MD, Director of Student Health Services, McGill University, Quebec.
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