Science Says You Don't Need More Sleep To Get Better Grades, But Here's What You Do Need

by Julia Guerra

College seems simple enough at first: go to class, remember to meet, and clock in the standard 6-to-8 hours of shut-eye before doing it all again the next morning. But even if your plan is to participate in the bare minimum of academic extracurriculars and credits asked of you, undergrad is still exhausting. Between long seminars, internship opportunities, social events, and working part-time, where does sleep — let alone other means of self-care — fit into your schedule? College students’ sleep health is suffering now more than ever these days, according to NPR, and that’s because you’re expected to handle all the responsibilities of an adult while still trying to hold on to your adolescence for dear life. But here's the thing: sleep is necessary not just for your health, but because if you aren't sleeping properly, you can't function properly. The more effort you put into fine-tuning your sleep schedule, the better the odds everything else in your life will fall into place, too.

Millennials pride themselves on being masterful multitaskers, according to research released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but that often means that sleep falls by the wayside. Listen, if you want to add a few extra credits to your class schedule, or take more of an initiative at your internship, more power to you. But overcommitting becomes an issue if you’re piling too much responsibility on an otherwise already-full plate, especially if it gets to the point where you're literally losing sleep over it.

And apparently, a lot of students are losing sleep over it: In a 2017 study published in the online research journal Scientific Reports, researchers linked undergraduates' irregular sleep schedules with their academic performance and found that college students are indeed exhausted — not because they aren’t getting enough shut-eye, but because their sleep schedules aren't consistent enough. Associate professor of medicine and lead study author Andrew Phillips and his team of Harvard scientists explored how the inconsistency of a college schedule can directly affect a student’s sleep cycle by recruiting 61 students between the ages of 18 and 24 and asking each participant to keep a 30-day log detailing their sleep schedules. It was from these diaries that researchers were able to identify two types of sleepers: regular sleepers, who would consistently go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, and irregular sleepers, who went to bed and woke up based on their activities and/or class or work schedules.

After analyzing the students’ sleep diaries and matching them with their respective GPAs earned at the end of the research, the results showed that regular sleepers tended to earn better grades than irregular sleepers — but, according to the researchers, their bodies also produced more melatonin (a sleep hormone) come nightfall as a result of sleeping more consistently, which could also explain why irregular sleepers’ GPAs weren’t as high — not because of a lack of rest, but because of a lack of consistent rest. Phillips told CNN,

Usually, at nighttime, our circadian clock sends a signal that tells us to release melatonin overnight.
...if the student had an 8 a.m. class, it would actually be happening at 5 a.m. biological time. It's as if they were traveling from the East Coast time zone to the Pacific time zone.

In order to truly understand what Phillips is getting at here, you need to understand your circadian rhythm and how it works. Think of your circadian rhythm like an internal clock that operates according to your body's exposure to sunlight and darkness. When a certain part of your brain (your hypothalamus) receives light in the morning, it signals the rest of your brain to reduce the sleep hormone melatonin, and wake up the body. When the sun goes down and the sky starts to dim, sleep science coach and founder of SleepZoo, Chris Brantner, tells Elite Daily the hypothalamus signals the brain to produce more melatonin, readying the body for sleep.

But as a college student your circadian rhythm might not be so... rhythmic. It ultimately depends on a few key details, like the amount of artificial light you're exposed to, how much caffeine you drink close to bedtime, and how your schedule changes day to day. But when you’re working with a really hectic schedule, it can feel almost impossible to realistically get 6-to-8 hours of shut-eye every single night, let alone crawl into bed at the same time Monday through Sunday. So the question isn’t how can you get more sleep, but how can you get roughly the same amount of sleep every night, no matter what your schedule looks like from one day to the next?

For starters, students would perform much better academically and feel their absolute best if classes began later in the day — and health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, and students behind the Start School Later initiative are currently fighting for school districts to do exactly that. The idea is, when schools start too early, students’ grades can suffer, as well as their mental and physical health, in a big way, and there’s plenty of evidence to support this claim, as Kari Oakes, National Management Team, Start School Later, and program director for Healthy Hours of Sleep 101, tells Elite Daily. But Oakes says the real problem is that schools' reasons for starting earlier than necessary are unfounded, and they often depend on things like predetermined bus schedules, sports programs, and/or after-school jobs.

“When these schedules were designed, [school administrations, parents, and students alike] didn’t know as much about adolescent circadian rhythms, or understand how important it is that teens and young adults get enough sleep, and at the right time for their still-growing bodies and brains,” Oakes explains. Early hours of operation, she adds, not only sacrifice students’ ability to learn, but also their overall health, potentially causing things like unhealthy changes in weight, migraines, and a weakened immune system.

So the question isn’t how can you get more sleep, but how can you get roughly the same amount of sleep every night, no matter what your schedule looks like from one day to the next?

But Start School Later's initiative isn’t only directed at elementary through high schoolers; this is a collegiate movement, too. This is why the organization developed Sleep 101, an online resource designed exclusively for college students to help them better understand the importance of sleep. During a Q&A about Sleep 101 with the Mary Christie Foundation, Dr. Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explained that college students in particular are very vulnerable to sleep deprivation because their circadian rhythms are shifting:

We think of college kids as not needing sleep; and they think of themselves this way, so much so that they feel like failures if they can’t function without sleep. The truth is, sleep deprivation and circadian disruption in college students can create a downward spiral that leads to anxiety, depression, weight gain, and greater risk of a variety of health consequences and injury.

So is it realistic to have schools completely redesign their scheduling methods and prioritize students' sleep health? As far as Oakes is concerned, yes, and some colleges are already making it a priority to educate their students on the importance of sleep. New York University, Stanford University, and the University of Missouri all built classes into their psychology curriculums focusing on the science behind and importance of sleep, while institutions like Clemson University and Oklahoma State have teamed up with personalized coaches to implement sleep education into their athletic training programs.

In 2014, a pilot study published in the journal Sleep Health and performed at a university in southwestern Pennsylvania, explored whether or not implementing sleep health promotion programs would actually be beneficial to students. For the study, 110 undergraduates (the majority of whom were between the ages of 18 and 22) were asked to keep an online journal for two weeks, detailing things like their bedtime, how long they slept through the night, how often they took naps, and the number of text messages they received and read before going to sleep. During the third week of the experiment, participants sat through an hour-long presentation on the importance of sleep health in general, and the importance of sleep for college students specifically.

Once students attended the presentation, researchers offered each participant an individualized assessment of their sleep health, which included a summary of their sleep journal data, a breakdown of how much time they spent in bed versus in bed and actually asleep, and a few recommendations for how to achieve optimal rest moving forward. In the weeks that followed, the researchers found that these students not only felt more knowledgeable on the subject of sleep, but they’d also taken the necessary steps to improve their sleep patterns overall.

Until this becomes a norm at every college across the country, it's still possible to find consistency in an otherwise hectic and constantly in-flux schedule. The reality is, your body’s going to be thrown for a loop if one day you’re crawling under the covers at 9 p.m., and the next, you’re crashing at 1 a.m. Consistency is key, doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, tells Elite Daily over email, so if you aren’t consistent in your sleep-wake schedule, everything is going to feel off-balance.

“Consistency generates habits, and the more consistent we are with maintaining a schedule, it will make it easier to generate healthy habits,” Forshee says. When you follow a proper sleep-wake schedule, she adds, your body will adapt, and eventually, you'll naturally “start feeling tired at an acceptable bedtime, and you will feel refreshed at an acceptable hour in the morning.”

So how can you achieve consistency, without having to sacrifice your college experience? In a survey of 18 college students conducted by Bustle Trends Group, six participants said the key to "having it all" is keeping yourself organized and holding yourself accountable, even when your schedule is subject to change. One student wrote, "There can be a number of surprises throughout the week and your schedule won’t always be able to prepare you for that. If you’re able to set your priorities and form a habit, consistency is definitely possible."

The majority of students in the survey agreed: Consistency happens when you plan for it, and you can do this in a number of ways. For starters, take advantage of the resources you have on campus. Weigh out your options in terms of flexibility of class schedules, and make an appointment with someone like an academic advisor or health service center representative.

“Consistency generates habits, and the more consistent we are with maintaining a schedule, it will make it easier to generate healthy habits,” Forshee says.

Unfortunately, your class schedule might not always align perfectly with your body’s internal clock. Once you’ve nailed down an academic schedule that’s at least manageable, if not ideal, the next step is to achieve consistency outside the classroom and in the bedroom, starting with a soothing nighttime routine that doesn't involve scrolling through social media. According to Brantner, even if toying with your phone seems to make you feel sleepy, it's actually doing the opposite: making you less tired and a lot more anxious.

“A recent study [by UK-based multinational professional services network Deloitte] showed that 66 percent of people use their phones within 30 minutes of sleep, and 35 percent within 5 minutes of sleep,” Brantner tells Elite Daily over email — and that likely has to do with the fact that staring into the blue light of your phone before bed hinders melatonin production. Research published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, which analyzed how often adults between the ages of 19 and 32 are using social media, backed up this claim, showing that browsing social media can cause anxiety, not to mention trigger FOMO.

And even though a significant number of Bustle's survey respondents said that browsing social media is a staple in their nighttime routines, one student admitted that, some nights, when they check their phone right before bed, it does make them feel more awake, and even prevents them from falling asleep for at least "half an hour or so." The solution to all of this, Brantner suggests, is to “turn off your smartphone an hour before bed.”

Is it doable? Sure, but it'll require some self-restraint.

Brantner tells Elite Daily that in addition to the many ways you can practice what he calls "sleep hygiene" (i.e. preparing your body for sleep) during the day — cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, and spending more time outside to familiarize your circadian rhythm with natural versus artificial light — it's crucial to create an atmosphere in your bedroom that acts as a kind of sanctuary for your body to relax and settle down in before sleep. Decorating your bedroom with blackout curtains, wearing a sleep mask to shield your eyes from unnecessary light sources (like your smartphone or alarm clock), and/or investing in either a comfortable mattress or comforter, Brantner says, can all help you achieve this.

The idea here is that when you’re immersed in a relaxing environment, your body will pick up on these external cues and start to internalize them. Cali Estes, Ph.D., founder of The Addictions Coach and The Addictions Academy, suggests indulging in acts of self-care in the evening, like painting your nails or taking a bubble bath or warm shower, to “rest and recharge.” Another way to do this, experts at Naam Yoga tell Elite Daily, is to take a few minutes to meditate. That way, your mind is clear before you hit the pillow, and it’ll be a lot easier to fall asleep.

Speaking of falling asleep, there’s an app to track that, too. We're all aware of what a big faux-pas it can be to have your phone nearby while you snooze, but consider this a scientific loophole. You still shouldn’t be scrolling through Instagram or updating your Facebook status at 2 a.m., but smartphone apps like SleepScore and Sleep Cycle can help you learn more about your circadian rhythm by tracking how many hours you slept, the quality of your sleep, and by recommending sleep-wake times to follow in order to feel your best every day.

Setting the mood and creating a nighttime routine that relaxes you is a great start, but another huge part of practicing self-care and good sleep hygiene is learning how to say no to plans, or to taking on too much responsibility. Things like exhaustion, brain fog, anxiety over missing out on an event, malnutrition, and/or a lack of sleep are all red flags your body will be waving when it's exhausted, Estes tells Elite Daily, and when your body sounds the alarm, you have to know how to respond.

“Students can say, ‘Let me get back to you in 24 hours, I need to move some things around in my schedule,’” Estes tells Elite Daily, referring to what she's coined as the "24-hour rule." This way, you have plenty of time to decide if it's something you really want or have the energy to do, as opposed to coming off aggressive by shutting down a friend or a professor right off the bat.

The fear seems to be that the more you say no, the less likely it becomes that you’ll be invited out in the future — that’s where FOMO comes in.

And, granted, if you’re reading all of this and thinking, “easier said than done,” you’re not alone. According to Bustle’s survey results, it’s not exactly turning down an invite that’s the problem; it’s the act of flat-out saying no to a friend and potentially letting them down that makes staying in feel so wrong. One survey respondent said she has such a hard time saying the actual word "no," that she’ll “make an excuse without saying the word” instead. Another student said it’s particularly nerve-racking to say no to a friend if they’ve already declined plans with them in the past. The fear seems to be that the more you say no, the less likely it becomes that you’ll be invited out in the future — that’s where FOMO comes in.

However, despite having to go through the awkward process of declining plans with their friends, many of the surveyed students said they generally will pass on an invite for the sake of catching up on some Zs. Still, just because you know you’ve canceled on a potentially fun plan for the sake of your health, doesn’t mean you won’t feel a little bummed when your squad starts posting pics to Instagram. To soften the blow, one student in the survey said her strategy is simply to stay as far away from social media as possible, and to remember that saying no today doesn’t mean you have to say no tomorrow: "Best thing for me, is to [shut off social media] and know that I really am not missing out on anything too crazy. There will always be more parties, more opportunities to go to a bar, etc. If I miss one night out, it is NOT the end of the world."

If you ever find yourself feeling unsure about whether or not you should follow through with plans, Estes suggests asking yourself questions like, “Will this be for my higher good?” or, “Do I really want to do this?” before saying yes to any social event or academic commitment you might not really have the time or energy for.

If you're going to consistently follow through with any one plan, though, it should be the one you make with yourself. Scheduling specific times of the week — Sunday night, Wednesday morning, whatever works with your schedule — and truly dedicating that time to only yourself and the things you enjoy, will ensure “me time” isn’t forgotten or glossed over to make someone else happy. Keep this time reserved for yourself just like you would a class. But in the same way you'd block off an hour for Zumba or allot yourself some much-needed R&R on a Sunday night, sleep has to be a priority too. It's arguably the most important form of self-care.

Of course, though consistency is absolutely key, there will be days when your class or social calendar throws you for a curve. In that case, the best strategy is just to do the best you can with the resources you've got at your disposal. The better your sleep cycle is, the more you'll get out of your college experience, mainly because — wait for it — you'll be awake for it.