Is Sleep Deprivation Sabotaging Your Grades?

by | Jun 10, 2015

It’s easy to think that you are invincible in high school and college, that you can go hours upon hours without sleep, that you can effectually push your brain to its breaking point without suffering any negative consequences. The truth, however, is that sleep deprivation not only saps your health and energy, but also harms your brain.

I have always been a night owl so it was only a matter of time before I pulled my first all-nighter in college. I put every minute of that night to good use (at least, I thought so) as I hammered away at my keyboard, racing to finish a very important term paper. But in retrospect, those all-nighters and other nights of little sleep were far from wise decisions. I ended up barely able to stay awake in class, exhausted as I tried to finish my other homework projects.

Ultimately, I learned the hard way that being a night owl doesn’t make you smarter, and sleepless nights are not something to brag about. The myth of the successful and productive genius who only needs four hours of sleep at night is just that: a myth. In today’s post, I’ll be looking at the importance of prioritizing sleep and how to make sure you are well rested especially on those days when you have a crucial exam.

What Sleep Deprivation Does to Your Brain

Did you know that you can die faster from sleep deprivation than food deprivation?

When you are exhausted from lack of sleep, your body overproduces the stress hormone cortisol. Take a moment to check out this infographic that shows exactly what sleep deprivation does to your brain. Among the side-effects are loss of long-term memories, the tendency to make risky decisions, cerebral shrinkage, and death of brain cells (the last may be irreparable). Aside from the effects on the brain, this article shows that lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain, depression, premature aging, and early death.

And according to this article from Medical Daily,

When you sleep, your brain flushes away all the unused and miscellaneous information strewn inside the tissues, and it keeps the good stuff … A day’s demands also leave your body tired, which sleep helps offset by replenishing hormones and repairing muscles. Missing sleep robs the body of these functions. Sleep-deprived brains are, on average, smaller in volume and less populous in brain cells. A pair of recent studies upholds the idea that well-rested brains are the healthiest brains.

The takeaway? Staying up all night to study for exams or finish homework projects is a really bad idea. You will not be doing your best work (your brain just doesn’t function as well when sleep deprived), and your grades will eventually suffer. Even worse, your health will eventually suffer too.

Smart and Successful People Don’t Exist on a Handful of Hours of Sleep

So where did the myth come from that really smart and successful people can exist on only a handful of hours of sleep at night? We should probably blame it on Thomas Edison.

Edison, of course, is known as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb (in actuality, he didn’t invent the light bulb, but he did discover how to make a more economical, practical, and longer lasting one). Artificial light, of course, was a blessing to night owls everywhere. No longer did our productive hours have to be dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. And Edison believed anyone who didn’t take advantage of that was lazy and simpleminded.

He once wrote,

When I went through Switzerland in a motor-car, so that I could visit little towns and villages, I noted the effect of artificial light on the inhabitants. Where water power and electric light had been developed, everyone seemed normally intelligent. Where these appliances did not exist, and the natives went to bed with the chickens, staying there until daylight, they were far less intelligent.

In 1921, he bragged,

For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities.

But Edison was actually hiding a little secret. Even if he didn’t indulge in a long night’s sleep, he napped constantly. In fact, he often took several 3-hour naps a day. One of his associates is said to have observed that Edison’s “genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep anywhere, anytime, on anything.”

Frank Dyer and Thomas Martin write in their biography Edison: His Life and Inventions,

As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation.

So when Edison famously stated that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” he seems to have left out the sleeping bit.

How Much Sleep You Really Need

Here is a helpful chart from the National Sleep Foundation that shows how much sleep you should be getting based on your age.


Click to Enlarge

How to Get Better Sleep and Still Ace Your Exams

All of those hours of sleepless nights accumulate over time. In other words, if you haven’t been getting enough sleep at night, you have a huge sleep debt that you need to make up. Say, for example, you only managed to sleep for four hours last night. That means you are running a deficit of four hours of sleep. The best way to catch up is to probably tack on an extra hour of sleep tonight and do the same over the next three days or you could try to fit in time for several of Edison’s power naps.

Of course, it can be difficult to follow a healthy sleep schedule when you are extremely busy and swamped with deadlines. Here are several tips for making sure you are well rested throughout the school year:

1. Establish a sleep schedule. Determine your ideal bedtime by figuring out when you need to wake up in the morning and how many hours of sleep you need at night (eight is usually the optimal number). Try to go to bed at the same time every night. This will train your internal clock and help you fall asleep faster and sleep through the night. Don’t binge sleep on the weekends as this will throw off your sleep schedule.

2. Follow a night time ritual and avoid blue light. The light from laptops, smartphones, and similar electronics stimulates your brain, tricking it into thinking it is daytime and making it difficult to fall asleep. Instead, try to avoid electronics at least an hour before going to sleep. If you must use a computer, wear a pair of computer glasses that minimize digital eye strain and fatigue. Wind down with a relaxing activity like reading a book, listening to a podcast or calming music, or writing in your idea journal.

3. Exercise. Avoid exercising during the four hours before bedtime, but do make sure to exercise earlier in the day. Exercise helps you feel more alert throughout the day and improves the quality of your sleep. Read more about establishing an exercise routine in my blog post here.

4. Power nap like Edison. 2008 study showed that naps can actually be more effective than drinking caffeine for improving verbal memory, motor skills, and perceptual learning. Our circadian rhythm dictates that we usually feel sleepy in the afternoon. Depending on whether you are an early bird or a night owl, this can be anytime from 1:00 to 3:30. A 10-30 minute nap will help increase productivity and creativity. Try not to nap after 4:00 pm as that may disrupt your night time sleep.

5. Don’t pull all-nighters! If you absolutely must stay up late studying for an exam or finishing an essay, start off the night with a few hours of sleep and try to fit in several naps throughout the night as well. However, all-nighters really should be avoided at all costs. Try using these free apps to stop procrastination and to work more efficiently throughout the day so you can get a good night’s sleep before test day.

Here’s to a happy and healthy night’s sleep! Letting our brains recharge is essential to keeping them in optimal condition. 

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