More than 90 percent of American High School students and nearly 70 percent of college students are chronically sleep deprived, resulting in academic and health consequences.
If you’re like most, then you too are getting far less sleep than recommended for a balanced life.
National Sleep Foundation put together a high-powered panel of 18 scientists and researchers from reputed medical associations in the U.S. to study our daily sleep requirement. The panel gleaned through more than 300 studies, and came up with following recommendations:
If you notice, age has an inversely proportional relationship (lower the age, higher the sleep required) with the sleep required. This is because a growing body needs significantly more sleep to support its mental and physical development.
How much sleep do you need?
John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, says that sleep requirement of humans depends on so many variables that it’s difficult to arrive at a single number. To quote him from his book Brain Rules:
After all of these centuries of experience with sleep, we still don’t know how much of the stuff [sleep] people actually need. Generalizations don’t work. When you dig deep into the data on humans, what you find is not remarkable uniformity but remarkable individuality [emphasis mine].
That’s likely the reason why the panel has recommended a range and further stretched it by prescribing danger zones.
So, for example, if you’re a 15-year-old, you need 8-10 hours of sleep per day. (Looks high, right?) If you stretch the two limits by an hour, you’re still within the sustenance zone. But if you’re sleeping outside the sustenance zone (represented by faded orange color in the above chart), then you’re leading an unhealthy, unsustainable life that will adversely affect your performance.
What it means for you?
Since sleep shows ‘remarkable individuality’, you’ve to try different hours of sleep to figure out the minimum that doesn’t leave you yawning the next morning. If you’re a 15-year-old and if 7 hours of sleep keeps you alert the next day, then that’s what you need. Your ideal sleep-hours will invariably fall in the sustenance range in the above table.
Effects of sleep deprivation
On academic performance
Dr. Medina succinctly explains the effects of sleep deprivation through this equation:
Sleep loss = Brain drain
To quote him:
Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, and general math knowledge.
There are several studies which show that adequate sleep results in better academic performance. In one such study, Carskadon and her colleagues surveyed 3,000 high school students and found that those with higher grades reported sleeping more than those who had lower grades.
A study by researchers at McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal found that children who had better quality sleep performed better in math and languages.
Yet another study on college students at University of Minnesota found ‘significant positive correlation between amount of sleep per night with GPA, and a significant negative correlation between average number of days per week that students obtained less than five hours of sleep and GPA’.
On other things
Sleep deprivation also leads to weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
In a landmark experiment in late 90s, the town of Edina, Minnesota, shifted the start time of its high schools from 7:20 AM to 8:30 AM. This naturally gave students more time to sleep. Later on, researchers from University of Minnesota found that these students reported feeling less depressed and, of course, less sleepy.
Few steps you can take to control sleep deprivation
Working late in the night and compromising on sleep may give you the impression that you’re working more. But if you’re day-sleeping and working sub-optimally through the day as a result of sleep deprivation, then those additional hours mean nothing. Net, you might be achieving less by working more number of hours if you’re compromising on sleep. And most students, as University of Michigan neurology professor Shelley D. Hershner says, may not even realize that they’re losing something as a result of sleep deprivation:
A lot of students realize they are sleepy, but I don’t think they understand all of the ramifications. When we are sleep deprived, we don’t judge our own ability well.
You may take few steps to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep:
1. Focus on less. Be more productive
The pressure to get into good colleges can drive High School students to sleep late. Test prep, school work, and extra-curricular activities often come at the expense of sleep. For college students, the pressure to get good GPA, socialize, and hunt for internship and full-time job can keep them awake late in the night.
Can you overlook these societal pressures and walk a different path? Unlikely, for most. The best you can do is shed few activities which aren’t critical to your major goals (example: is that elective or extracurricular activity on pottery critical for your goals?) and be more productive with your schedule to squeeze out those 30-40 minutes for additional sleep.
2. Avoid screen-time 1-2 hours before bed
Electronic devices such as computers, tablets, and smart phones emit light of all colors, but the blue light particularly interferes with your sleep by inhibiting the release of hormone melatonin, which regulates your sleeping-awakening cycle. And it affects teens far more significantly than adults.
Can you resist watching that funny YouTube video or responding to a text message late in the night? Instead, maybe, take to reading as a pre-bed ritual. (Pre-bed rituals are known to induce sleep.) I know it’s hard. But sometimes there are no easy ways.
Whereas the first two steps will pay you the most dividends, you may take few other steps:
Avoid caffeine in the evening as it is known to interfere with sleep
Eat dinner 2-3 hours before going to bed
Create an ambience (temperature and dim or no lights) conducive to sleeping