University students often place sleep low on their priority lists: with academic pressures, the need to have a social life, and personal troubles in general, student exhaustion is simply part and parcel of the university experience.

Caffeinated “Cures”

A few weeks ago, I was grabbing a much-needed coffee with my friend, Shae. Midterm season was starting, and the workload was already getting to be overwhelming. Shae had just pulled yet another all-nighter, and I couldn’t help but ask her, “How much do you think you sleep in a week?” The response was shocking.

Student Exhaustion Is Real

“Maybe 15 hours.” Shae responded after giving the question a moment of thought. At first, I found it hard to believe. Surely, she must have been exaggerating. But after speaking more with Shae, I quickly came to realize that for university students, exhaustion is an expected aspect of life. Students are well aware that sleep is an important aspect of health. However, many—if not most—students feel that rest is the price to pay for success at school.

“I think as university students we’re just expected to be exhausted. Everybody’s feeling that way.”

Brains Over Bedtime

There is a disconnect between the valid struggles of students and the support that they receive from post-secondary institutions. Students have largely come to accept that there is no alternative but to give up healthy outcomes for success in the classroom. 

“Obviously, I don’t feel supported. But I don’t really think anybody does…we’ve learned to suck it up. You can complain to your friends that you’re exhausted, but it’s not going to stop you from doing what you have to do.”

– Shae, Canadian University Student

Post-secondary education is widely viewed as a young adult’s ticket to a successful life. In many ways, people enter the classroom competing for a position in the world. Students bear the burden of exhaustion largely due to the fact that they don’t see an alternative.

I Don’t Know My Well-Rested Self

While up to 60% of students have poor sleep habits, explaining the issue with school alone is simply inadequate. Shae made it clear that her lack of sleep is not just the result of school stress. She has chronic health conditions, she struggles with anxiety, and she has relationships to balance.

“The common theme is school, but everybody has work. Everybody has life. Everybody has relationship issues.”

All students talk about being tired. Explaining why often feels unnecessary. Everyone has life outside of the classroom that they are expected to deal with, no matter the cost. 

Many university students, like Shae, no longer know their well-rested selves.

Late Night Talking = Student Exhaustion

Given Shae’s lifetime history of sleep issues, constant exhaustion is not new for her. What has changed, though, is that she is no longer alone in her tiredness. 

Staying up late is a hallmark of university culture. Nighttime is the time to socialize and spend time with friends. There is a sense of community in staying up late, which students feel they would otherwise sacrifice if they prioritize sleep. 

Students Exhaustion High Price To Pay For All-Nighters

Academic pressures to get work done paired with the social dimension of staying up late create a dangerous cocktail that fosters student exhaustion. The health impacts of this trend present a call to action: students need to know that their exhaustion is a valid problem worth rallying against.

The following are a mere handful of the health risks associated with late nights and pulling all-nighters:

  1. Lowered weekday alertness (Papaconstantinou et al.)

Struggling to get enough sleep on weekdays inevitably makes weekends your time to play catch-up. However, this disrupts your sleep-wake cycle and exacerbates the brain fog you feel in class.

  1. Dysregulation of metabolic hormones (​​Papaconstantinou et al.)

Sleep deprivation impacts the major metabolic hormones leptin and ghrelin. This throws your indicators of hunger and satiety off-balance.

  1. Higher BMI (Cappuccio et al.)

If sleep duration is poor, your body will try to make up for low energy with increased caloric intake. In fact, a meta-analysis has found that cutting back on sleep is a predictor of obesity.

  1. Poorer memory (Hershner & Chervin)

While you may be thinking an all-nighter will help you memorize your notes, this sleep disruption actually has the opposite effect. A study found that students who experienced 35 hours of sleep deprivation had memory performance 2 letter grades lower than non-sleep-deprived students.

  1. Risks circadian rhythm (Freeman et al.)

Risks to your circadian rhythm are mainly attributable to irregular sleep and all-nighters. Once your sleep schedule has been derailed by a couple of nights of staying up later than usual, it can become a challenge to get back on track. 

  1. Greater Emotional Reactivity (Hershner & Chervin)

Sleep disruption alters your emotional reactivity and judgement. Not getting enough sleep makes us more than merely grumpy. The impacts on emotion are profound.

  1. Higher anxiety levels (Medic et al.)

Poor sleep has a significant effect on anxiety. Lack of sleep and heightened anxiety can begin to work hand in hand, especially in the competitive environment of universities.

  1. Raised pain sensitivity (Chen et al.)

Studies have found that sleep deprivation leads to a greater level of pain sensitivity. When you get less sleep, your body has more trouble mediating inflammation and pain. The effects of poor sleep are more than just mental.

  1. Increased stress levels (Nollet et al.)

Sleep and stress have a reciprocal relationship. Putting off sleep leads to a rise in stress hormones. While innate stress is largely out of our control, getting to bed at a decent time is controllable. 

  1. GPA can suffer overall (Hysing et al.)

Short sleep duration and sleep deficit have shown to decrease GPA averages, even when sociodemographic information is accounted for. Overall, research shows that staying up late to study simply isn’t worth it.

Student Exhaustion Solutions Right Behind Us

Student exhaustion is often taken in stride. We expect to be constantly exhausted yet the COVID 19 accommodations that existed during the pandemic offered us a peek into an exhaustion-free life. Providing students with self-reported absences (SRAs) was a step in the right direction. Now, as institutions are easing restrictions to keep us physically healthy, they are increasing restrictions regarding access to support for less visible forms of health. 

With SRAs, students did not have to explain why they needed an exemption from a day of classes. However, as the pandemic becomes a thing of the past, many Universities seem to have dropped SRAs as an option.

“Now you either have to go to your prof and justify asking for an extension, or you have to go through academic counselling and justify it. What if the reason literally is ‘to sleep’? You don’t get it. And they don’t care”, said Shae.

While educational institutions should be doing far more than simply putting up posters and sending mass emails out to their students about the perils of student exhaustion and lack of sleep, it’s ultimately up to the students themselves to take matters into their own hands. Establishing a routine is one of the keys to immediately start regulating sleeping habits. Creating “cut-offs” for study and screen time is significant when it comes to getting more sleep.

Student exhaustion should not be a prerequisite for attending post-secondary education. Sleep is a necessary component of health, both physically and mentally. Students motivated by academic success should take comfort in the realization that proper sleep is a key element which fosters the very success they strive for.

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