Humans and Health

Sleep: The Consequences of Not Sleeping Enough

Christian Clark

November. Clocks back, fluffy coats on, studying prioritised. It’s an undeniably harder time compared to even a month ago, when the days were longer, warmer and, happily, those winter exams seemed a way off. Yet with the eleventh month comes increasing academic pressure, and the way to beat this seems obvious: hours upon hours of studying. Fetch a black coffee, a boatload of notes and settle down to the long November nights of relentless revision. As Marilyn Monroe pointed out, “who said nights were for sleep?”.

And, yes, staying up ‘til the early hours may seem rewarding: it may feel great that you finished your lab report, or that novel you so badly needed to read. But with short-term alleviation comes long-term distress, as the two S’ (studying and sleep) struggle to coexist. What is it to get five hours, or less, if the work is finished? Well, I’m afraid to say, it’s quite a lot. 

You may have read the BBC article, ‘Five hours’ sleep is the tipping point for bad health’. Maybe you were too tired to read it. Maybe it set off alarm bells. Maybe it’s the reason you’re here. Either way, I’m here to unpack it in the context of university life, and offer some advice for turning it around.

And, oh my, some not terrible news (for the average student, at least):  the study found that ‘those who slept five hours or less around the age of 50 had a 30% greater risk of multiple ailments than those who slept seven hours’. In other words, you’ve got time to sort things out. Many years in fact. But that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free. The key finding from this study is that sleeping for under five hours increases the risk of serious illness, presumably at any age.

At the end of the day, we all struggle to nod off from time to time, and the pressure of university deadlines makes it harder than ever

It’s supported, too, by a number of other articles, such as this one. Apparently a lack of sleep messes up our body clocks, upsetting the body’s ’24 hour rhythm’ and damaging our ‘wellbeing and alertness’ as well as increasing the likelihood of poor blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The article highlights that the ‘optimal bedtime – is between 10pm and 11pm’. Ask yourself: how often are you asleep before 11pm? Chances are, it isn’t too common. So, think of this research and consider what staying up until the early hours could lead to. Maybe leave the evenings for relaxing or socialising and crucially SLEEPING (anything but studying).

Now, what sort of article would this be if, after telling of the dangers of sleep deprivation, no solution was offered? If you’re getting five hours of sleep every night (or for anyone generally looking to get the most out of sleeping), then here’s some suggestions.

  1. Sort out a good schedule, starting early so you can finish early and have a relaxing evening. 
  2. Avoid caffeine, large meals and alcohol in the hours before sleeping.
  3. Get enough exercise in the day.
  4. Remove/turn off electronics to reduce blue light (don’t go on your phone directly before sleeping, either).
  5. Have a soothing cup of tea, meditate, or listen to a sleep podcast. The series of Calm sleep stories is great! (what better than the voice of Stephen Fry to soothe you to sleep).

As you can see, there’s a number of things you can try to get off to sleep just that little bit easier (and if none of these work, a quick Google search will give you even more help). At the end of the day, we all struggle to nod off from time to time, and the pressure of university deadlines makes it harder than ever. Remember: sleeping not only puts you at a higher risk physically, but also reduces your capacity to perform well academically. As a BBC Future article claimed, ‘sleep should be every student’s priority’, and I’d have to agree.

Christian Clark

Featured image courtesy of Matthew Henry via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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