Students writing while their classmate is sleeping due to irregular sleep.

Irregular sleep affects the grades of college students.

The pressures of college life can take a toll on our habits. Some students suffer through late nights in order to cram for tomorrow’s big test. Others are beholden to their class schedule, waking up and going to sleep at different times of the day. This kind of lifestyle leads to irregular sleep patterns, which some researchers are saying holds negative effects.

To understand the importance of our sleep patterns, we have to look at circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that react to your body’s natural internal clock. Effectively, these rhythms dictate several aspects of our body. Mainly, they change when we are ready to go to sleep and when we are most alert.

Normally, circadian rhythms regulate what time we wake up and go to sleep. This is based on the amount of light in our given environment. When the sun rises we wake up, and when it’s dark, our body is ready to go to sleep. However, after a thorough analysis of sleep patterns, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that a disruption of these rhythms affects the academic performance of students.

Factoring in Irregular Sleep

For this study, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital gathered 61 full-time undergraduates from Harvard College. The participants used sleep diaries to record their activities. The main factors the team was looking for include the following:

  • Sleep Regularity
  • Sleep Duration
  • Quality of Sleep
  • Sleep-Wake Times
  • Academic Performance

“Our results indicate that going to sleep and waking up at approximately the same time is as important as the number of hours one sleeps,” stated Andrew J. K. Phillips, Ph.D., biophysicist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author on the paper. “Sleep regularity is a potentially important and modifiable factor independent from sleep duration,” Phillips said.

School Grades

“We found that the body clock was shifted nearly three hours later in students with irregular schedules as compared to those who slept at more consistent times each night, stated Charles A. Czeisler, Ph.D., MD, Director of the Sleep Health Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and senior author on the paper.

“For the students whose sleep and wake times were inconsistent, classes and exams that were scheduled for 9 a.m. were, therefore, occurring at 6 am according to their body clock, at a time when performance is impaired. Ironically, they didn’t save any time because, in the end, they slept just as much as those on a more regular schedule,” continued Czeisler.

Too many changes to the circadian clock can disrupt the body. The process takes some time to adjust to the new schedule of students. As a reaction, the melatonin that your body needs to wake releases much later.

“Regular sleepers got significantly higher light levels during the daytime, and significantly lower light levels at night than irregular sleepers who slept more during daytime hours and less during nighttime hours.”

Researchers suggest that fixing irregular sleep requires that students are exposed to more natural light and avoid using electronic devices at night. They should also stick to a better schedule for when to go to bed and wake up.