Did you know science has not yet discovered a definitive answer for why we sleep? Although it’s still a mystery, scientists generally agree that most animals, even brainless jellyfish, do at least enter sleep-like states. So, if sleep is necessary even for brainless animals, it’s even more vital for a grad student like you with your big, beautiful grey matter.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, students who pull all-nighters are likelier to have a lower GPA. The National Institutes of Health reports that lack of sleep may reduce your ability to learn new things by up to 40%. Clearly, sleep is crucial for peak academic performance, but most adults don’t get the 7-9 hours they need to function at their best.
It’s not just your grades that will suffer. Failing to prioritize sleep can also affect your mental health and lead to a vicious cycle that jeopardizes the quality of your sleep in the long run. To avoid these adverse effects, you must practice good sleep habits that are conducive to getting sound, uninterrupted rest. In our helpful guide, you’ll learn the impact of sleep on work and school, get actionable tips for improving your sleep routine and habits, and find resources for further reading. You’ll also receive advice from a sleep expert. Do yourself a favor and keep reading to get the lowdown on those sweet, high-quality z’s.
Don’t Snooze on Good Sleep
Although sleep quality directly correlates to academic and job performance, many grad students don’t prioritize it because they’re overcommitted and overextended. But if you’re not putting sufficient rest at the top of your list, you’re making your job as a student harder than it should be. Sleep deprivation often produces harmful effects that interfere with academic performance, such as increased stress, brain fog, and low energy levels. Learn more about sleep deprivation’s many negative effects and how they can impact your grades.
Lower Academic Performance
An article from Web MD outlines sleep deprivation’s cognitive effects, which includes trouble concentrating, impaired memory, and learning difficulties. Obviously, the combination of these effects can significantly impact your academic performance in grad school. A study of college students published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that for every hour of nightly sleep lost, end-of-term GPA was reduced by 0.07.
Increased Mental Health Issues
Insufficient sleep can take a toll on your mental health. According to a Columbia University psychiatrist, research shows that lack of sleep (or lack of quality sleep) can cause or exacerbate a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. A study published in Preventing Chronic Disease found that people who slept six or fewer hours per night were two and a half times more likely to experience frequent mental distress.
The connection between sleep deprivation and lack of motivation seems obvious on the surface. When the mind and body are fatigued, summoning enough energy to get things done is difficult. But the connection goes deeper than that. According to Psychology Today, insufficient sleep can interfere with your ability to self-regulate, which is vital for controlling your behavior when it comes to your ability to delay gratification, initiate important tasks, and be persistent. When this critical executive function is impaired, it can be difficult to tear yourself away from a fun, low-stress activity (such as watching a movie or scrolling social media) and begin or finish a task that requires a lot of mental bandwidth, such as writing a paper or studying for an exam.
Less Energy to Get Through the Day
At night, the body naturally cycles through different stages of sleep, but getting too few hours may mean missing out on deep sleep, which, according to an article from Harvard Medical School, is the most critical stage for energy production. When the body is in this stage of sleep, it repairs and renews itself. Even more importantly, this is when the body’s ability to produce ATP (a molecule responsible for storing and using energy at the cellular level) is boosted.
More Brain Fog
The symptoms of brain fog, which include sluggishness, distractibility, overwhelm, and general difficulty in thinking, can arise from several sources, including sleep deprivation. According to one study, sleep deprivation makes it difficult for the brain’s neurons to communicate, leading to lapses in cognition and slower reaction times. Furthermore, according to sleepfoundation.org, these fuzzy thinking processes can cause a person to make mistakes and have difficulty remembering or absorbing information.
Higher Levels of Stress
Although high stress levels are a well-known trigger for insomnia, being sleep-deprived can make you feel even more stressed out and anxious. In a survey from the American Psychological Association, most respondents reported feeling an additional increase in stress when their quantity or quality of sleep was reduced. An article from Rise Science helps explain this phenomenon. Lack of sleep can lead to elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) because the body is not given sufficient time to curb cortisol secretion during sleep. The Mayo Clinic notes that this overexposure to cortisol can increase the risk of many disorders, including stress’s close relative, anxiety.
7 Steps to Optimal Sleep
Getting a good night’s rest may seem complicated and out of reach for those struggling with chronic sleep deprivation. However, if you’re looking to step up your shut-eye game, there are many practical steps that you can take to help yourself get the quality rest that you need and deserve. After all, your brain (and the body that contains it) is the vehicle that will carry you through grad school, so give it the fuel and maintenance it requires to perform at top-notch levels. Check out the tips below to learn how to sleep like a pro. And, no, they don’t involve counting sheep.
#1 – Create an Optimal Sleeping Space
Set the scene for pleasant dreams and solid, recuperative rest. The CDC advises that an optimal sleep environment is dark, cool, and quiet. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that exposure to light during sleep results in less time spent in deep, restorative, slow-wave and REM sleep. So, aim to eliminate even moderate sources of light. Window treatments, such as room-darkening or blackout curtains, can reduce or eliminate light from external sources. This type of window treatment can also keep your room cooler, which is another essential component of an optimal sleep space: An article from the Cleveland Clinic puts the target temperature for sleeping between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep your sleep space quiet. Research shows that your brain is still hard at work processing sound even if you don’t wake up. You can use furnishings to deaden and absorb sound or use a white noise machine in especially disruptive circumstances.
#2 – Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule
A scheduled sleep routine can help you experience wakefulness and sleepiness at the appropriate times. According to sleepfoundation.org, keeping consistent sleep and wake times can help reset your circadian rhythm, essentially the body’s internal clock controlled by light exposure. Being exposed to light in the morning causes the body to release hormones that induce wakefulness. As the day wears on into evening, the body produces different hormones that signal it’s time to rest.
#3 – Restrict Caffeine, Alcohol, Drugs, or a Heavy Meal too Close to Bedtime
Although some sleep-disrupting factors seem obvious – don’t drink a cup of coffee and then hit the pillow, for example – other sources of sleep interference might surprise you. One study of university students showed that eating within three hours of bedtime increased the likelihood of nighttime awakenings by about 40%. Other factors, such as alcohol and drug consumption, can also have a significant impact. Research referenced by sleepfoundation.org reveals that alcohol consumption can disrupt the balance of sleep at different stages, reducing overall sleep quality. Some medications, such as certain antihistamines, cough suppressants, and pain relievers, can make sleeping difficult due to side effects like anxiety and jitteriness.
#4 – Limit Screens in the Evening
Staring at screens too close to bedtime can interfere with your sleep in more ways than one. The Cleveland Clinic notes that when you are actively engaged with content (through social media, for example), you are forcing your brain to continue thinking instead of going into rest mode. Furthermore, viewing emotionally driven content can amp up your emotions, which is not conducive to rest. Another well-known problem with screen use at bedtime is the blue light that devices emit. It mimics daylight, suppressing the body’s melatonin production and leading to wakefulness. Aim to put the devices away at least 30 minutes before bedtime to give your brain time to wind down.
#5 – Get Enough Exercise
Although many people can exercise anytime and not experience sleep disruptions, others report exercise-induced insomnia from vigorous physical activity too close to bedtime. As sleepfoundation.org explains, exercise releases endorphins, which can energize the body and cause alertness. Furthermore, intense exercise raises the body’s core temperature, which is the opposite of what you want at bedtime. According to WebMD, the body naturally cools in the evening in preparation for sleep. Avoid strenuous activity at least two hours before bed to make sure that you are cooled down and not full of endorphins when it’s time for sleep.
#6 – Create a Bedtime Routine to Help you Wind Down
One of the most important things you can do for your bedtime routine is to pick a bedtime and stick to it. In doing so, your body will naturally associate this time of day with rest. Before actually going to bed, though, try to get into relaxation mode. You may have to experiment to find the combination that helps you unwind the best, but some common recommendations include a warm bath to promote optimal body temperature, meditation or prayer to calm the mind, and reading a book to relax the brain and tire the eye muscles. Some people also find that listening to music positively effects their sleep.
#7 – Avoid Napping for Too Long or Too Late During the Day
Although napping can be beneficial for your health, napping for too long or too late in the day can interfere with getting quality sleep at night. The Mayo Clinic advises that the ideal nap duration is 10 to 20 minutes. Short naps like these aren’t likely to interfere with nighttime sleep. And besides, if you nap much longer than that, you may wake up feeling groggy. It is also important to avoid taking a nap after 3:00 p.m. As sleepfoundation.org explains, this is because naps that occur later in the day tend to consist of more deep sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep at night.
Can’t Sleep? How to Deal with Insomnia
Several types of insomnia are categorized according to duration and presence of coexisting disorders. However, no matter which type you experience or how long it lasts, it is a truly frustrating experience. You toss and turn, unable to switch your brain off or find a comfortable position. Although you long for sleep, all you can do is helplessly watch the time tick by on your clock as you become increasingly more desperate to get the rest you need to tackle the day that looms ahead, but it doesn’t come. There are things you can do to manage your condition and finally get some sleep. Below, we give you the lowdown on insomnia and how to banish it.
Check in on Your Mental Health
Insomnia and mental health problems share a somewhat circular relationship. As the American Psychiatric Association explains, insomnia can be a symptom of a mental health condition and a contributory or exacerbating factor. It’s quite common for the insomnia and mental health struggles to coexist. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 50% of insomnia cases are linked to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or psychological stress. If you’ve been dealing with chronic insomnia and have ruled out physical disease, it may be time to seek a psychiatric evaluation.
Optimize Your Sleep (See Above)
Your insomnia may result from poor sleep hygiene, which is a term that refers to both your sleep environment and daily routines that affect your sleep quality at night. Keep your sleep space dark, cool, and quiet. Establish and stick to a consistent sleep and wake schedule, and create a nightly wind-down routine so that your body knows when to start relaxing. Evaluate the activities (e.g., eating, drinking alcohol, screen time, napping, and exercise) you are engaged in close to bedtime to ensure that they don’t interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
Try Meditation to Slow Down Your Thoughts
Although some people shy away from the meditation because they perceive it as being mystical or “woo-woo,” it can actually be a practical tool in your quest for solid sleep. And scientific studies support this assertion. One such study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that participants trained to use mindfulness meditation experienced less insomnia and fatigue. Experts at Harvard explain that this type of meditation helps you focus on the moment instead of being engaged in distressing thoughts of the past or future. In this manner, mindfulness meditation can help you break sleep-disrupting thought patterns and evoke a relaxation response.
Try Journaling to Clear Your Mind
Some people who struggle with insomnia have too much information floating around inside their heads that they can’t disengage from. And as a grad student, your list of due dates, assignments, and other responsibilities is likely a bit overwhelming–what if you forget something? If this sounds familiar, a nightly journaling practice can help you get it all out of your head so you can quit thinking about it while you’re trying to fall asleep. A study explained in Psychology Today found that participants who journaled about the next day’s tasks fell asleep an average of nine minutes faster. One beneficial technique for this type of journaling is the brain dump. This approach involves two main steps: #1, quickly jot down all the thoughts burdening you, and #2, sort and prioritize them.
See Your Doctor
Although it is certainly possible that your insomnia is primary insomnia (inability to sleep unrelated to a coexisting disease), it is a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out other potential causes. The Mayo Clinic lists several diseases that can cause insomnia, including heart disease, diabetes, overactive thyroid, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Addressing an underlying medical condition may be the ticket to curing your insomnia. But if disease is ruled out, your doctor may treat your primary insomnia with cognitive behavioral therapy or a suitable medication.
The Dreamiest Sleep Resources Everyone Needs
If you’re looking for even more ideas and tools to help you improve your sleep, there are numerous blogs, articles, websites, organizations, and groups to help. We have combed through these resources and listed the best ones below. Check them out and start getting better sleep tonight.
- Circadian Sleep Disorders Network–Independent nonprofit organization for raising awareness of circadian rhythm disorders and supporting those affected. The site contains articles, brochures, infographics, and recommendations from patients.
- Eleven Steps to Creating the Perfect Bedroom for Sleep–Article from Good Housekeeping with numbered tips on optimizing your sleep space. Concrete, actionable advice covers everything from selecting the right bedding to creating a calm visual atmosphere.
- Fifty Night Journaling Prompts to Help You Put Your Thoughts to Bed–Numbered list of single-sentence prompts to get thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Varied topics allow for focusing on different types of sleep-disrupting thoughts.
- Free Guided Meditation Audio for Sleep and Insomnia–Collection of guided meditations from YouTube. Provides brief descriptions of each video and a short list of additional resources.
- How to Choose a Mattress in 8 Easy Steps–Article from Sleep Advisor that walks you through choosing the best mattress for your specific needs. Comprehensive guide to mattress types and important considerations.
- How to Choose a Pillow–Explains the importance of choosing the right pillow, gives in-depth information about different pillow types and features (size, fill, etc.), and discusses the consideration of preferred sleep position.
- How to Fall Back Asleep–Article from Headspace with eight tips for falling back asleep when you wake unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
- National Sleep Foundation Sleep Diary–Free two-week sleep diary in the form of a downloadable PDF. Helps you assess your sleep to zero in on problematic factors. Includes a self-assessment, instructions for use, and day and night templates.
- Natural Sleep Aids and Supplements–Article from WebMD that explains the advantages and side effects of 14 natural supplements that can be used as an alternative to prescription sleep medication.
- PillowSpecialist.com–In-depth reviews of 14 pillows deemed the best for 2023 by John Krauss, who personally tested each one. Covers virtually every aspect of and consideration for pillow selection and includes helpful photos to demonstrate points.
- Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation–Nonprofit organization that aims to raise awareness of restless legs syndrome and help find a cure. Website includes articles and a blog with patient experiences.
- r/insomnia Subreddit–Online community for sharing experiences with insomnia and finding resources. Content is searchable, so you can find out if your questions have previously been addressed.
- r/sleep Subreddit–Online community aimed at forming and strengthening good sleep habits. Find support and help support others.
- Seven of the Best Essential Oils for Sleep–General discussion of using essential oils for sleep followed by descriptions of seven essential oils that may help with sleep. Each description includes common uses and a discussion of related scientific studies.
- SleepAdvisor.org–Website that contains a vast library of articles on sleep topics. Broad categories include sleep science, sleep hygiene, and mattress and sleep accessory guides.
- SleepApnea.org–Website from the American Sleep Apnea Association that aims to provide education about sleep apnea. Learn about the condition, how it is diagnosed, and what treatments are available.
- SleepFoundation.org–Comprehensive library of science-based, expert-reviewed articles. Broad categories include sleep solutions, sleep topics, and sleep disorders, and each one is further subdivided into more specific categories.
- The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix it by W. Chris Winter, MD–Neurologist Chris Winter explains the rules of sleep science and explores landmark findings in the field. The book includes tips, tricks, exercises, and illustrations aimed at helping the reader get better sleep.
- What are Mental Health Assessments?–WebMD article explaining the ins and outs of mental health assessments. Learn what to expect when you show up for your appointment.
- Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD–By presenting scientific discoveries, UC Berkeley professor Matthew Walker explains why sleep is vital to all aspects of our health–mental, physical, and emotional.
Interview with a Sleep Expert
Teresa lives with her husband in Brooklyn, NY. She loves a good boxing workout, never turns down Italian food, and enjoys wine and whiskey from time to time. You can find her on Instagram: @sleepbetternyc
What are some effective strategies for managing stress and anxiety that can help students sleep better while balancing their graduate school workload?
Simple breathwork techniques can be incredibly powerful for relaxation during the day and sleep at night. By focusing on your breath, you are actually helping to regulate and calm your nervous system. Just a few minutes of breathwork can activate the “rest and digest” mode of your parasympathetic nervous system. Practicing slow, deep nasal breathing or something more specific like box breathing can help you to relax and focus when you are studying, and it can also help to slow your mind to fall asleep.
How can students optimize their sleep space to improve sleep quality?
Make your bedroom as much of a “sleep sanctuary” as possible. Keep it dark with dark blinds or blackout curtains. Keep it cool with a thermostat set to 70 or below, or using open windows and fans. Remove clutter and put away study materials that might distract you from relaxation. Don’t study or do work in bed. Your brain loves to make associations, and in order to get a restful night of sleep, you don’t want your brain to associate your bed with being alert and actively studying. Ideally, you would work and study in a different part of your home to keep the bed for sleep and sex only. If you have no other place to go, then sit on you bed with it made, and even work at the bottom or on the side you don’t normally sleep on.
What sleep hygiene habits are best for helping students improve their sleep quality?
Consistency is key to maintaining your circadian rhythm and sleep quality—it can also be difficult during these busy and stressful times. Create a bedtime routine and morning routine that include just a few simple steps that you can do most days, in the same order, around the same time. Over time, your habits will become second nature and it will be easier for you to fall asleep AND get your day started. On the topic of bedtime routine—set a timer to start getting ready for bed (not a bedtime alarm). An hour or two before bed, dim lights in your home, reduce screen time, stop working, and start your bedtime routine. This might include a goodnight text, some herbal tea, reading a book, shower and skin care. Warm/hot showers in the evening can help lower your core body temperature, which is needed for quality sleep. It can also help to symbolize washing off the day and putting the thoughts and tasks aside until tomorrow. Conversely, cold showers can increase hormones to make you feel alert and align your circadian rhythm to help you sleep several hours later.
Are there any specific foods or drinks that should be avoided before bedtime?
Alcohol has a profoundly negative effect on sleep quality. Although it can have a sedative effect, it represses your REM sleep, and it can also increase how much you snore. It also might have you waking up to run to the bathroom, so it’s best to avoid it before bed. Caffeine has a 4-6 hour “half-life,” meaning that if you drink an afternoon coffee, half of it might still be in your brain and bloodstream into the night. You won’t be feeling the jitters or energy, but it can still delay sleep and interrupt your quality of sleep. Spicy meals, sugary snacks, and fatty meals should also be avoided late night. If you are hungry before bed, light carbs and protein are best.
How can students manage their schedule and workload to ensure sufficient time for sleep each night?
Schedule and prioritize sleep like you would exercise or an important meeting. If it’s in your schedule and calendar, think twice before doing something during that time, and find ways to make it work. While it seems impossible, know that six or more hours of sleep are absolutely necessary to learn and maintain new information and skills. Quality sleep allows you to consolidate memories and “press save” on the important memories. An all-nighter is rarely effective for the next day, or long-term memory, as you simply don’t have the brain function to optimize memory without sleep.
What are some effective relaxation techniques that can help with falling asleep faster and sleeping more soundly?
Breathwork—I highly recommend box breathing and the 4-7-8 method, which are simple and effective (and easily searchable online). Progressive muscle relaxation or a body scan can be sleep-inducing as well. These techniques help you to focus your thoughts and feelings internally, rather than on the external ideas and tasks of the day that are racing through your mind.
What are some common sleep disorders that graduate students might experience, and what are some strategies for managing them?
Sleep Apnea—snoring is a common sign of this, although some people don’t snore at all. If you wake up with your heart racing or gasping for air, if you grind your teeth, if you have to use the bathroom multiple times each night, and/or wake up with headaches—speak to a sleep professional right away to get treated. You might try nasal sprays or mouth tape to encourage healthy breathing, but these will only work if you have a mild form of sleep apnea and snoring. (Ask me, or your primary care physician if you don’t know how to find a sleep professional).
Insomnia—sleeplessness is normal in all people from time to time, especially during stressful situations. Sleeplessness that lasts more than three months and happens more than three nights a week may be considered chronic insomnia. Healthy habits and sleep hygiene can help, but the most effective way to treat this is with cognitive behavioral therapy. There are apps and dedicated professionals to walk you through this. Sleeping pills are common but are not the most effective treatment, and they come with a long list of potential side effects.
How can students balance their social life and academic obligations while still prioritizing quality sleep?
Find others who are taking care of their minds and bodies, who respect your decision to do the same. Sleep is not a luxury or reward that you need to earn—it’s a biological need. It will only help you learn more, be more successful, and be a better person for yourself and your friends. If you drink alcohol at social events, try to limit the quantity, drink earlier in the day, and skip that night cap. Mocktails are really popular nowadays; when they don’t have too much sugar, some ingredients can even help you sleep! And, as mentioned before, schedule sleep and stick to a schedule as much as possible to make it easier for you to work around your priority and healthy habits.