This post was updated July 15 at 10:18 a.m.
After spending most of the previous night writing an essay, Kristen Ventura found herself struggling to stay awake during her 9:30 a.m. class.
“It was really hard to focus on what the professor was saying,” said Ventura, a rising fourth-year communication student. “It was almost as if I didn’t go to that lecture.”
About 64% of college students report feeling tired or sleepy during at least three days of the week, according to a fall 2018 research survey by the American College Health Association.
Despite the large percentage of cases similar to Ventura’s, sleep deprivation and its health consequences are often underreported, said Alon Avidan, vice chair of the neurology department and director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.
The Sleep Disorders Center researches causes and treatments for sleep disturbances. Avidan studies the effects of sleep disturbances on underlying neurological disorders and focuses on educating the public and professionals about sleep deprivation.
“Many people are able to resist and go on with their lives, but have no idea that what they are doing is actually harmful,” Avidan said. “It’s like constantly being at a blood alcohol level in the range of being illegal.”
As a student, Ventura said she feels that academic expectations may be one reason why sleep deprivation is not taken seriously.
“It’s a weird thing because people like to wear their sleep deprivation like a badge of honor … just to show that they’re dedicated,” Ventura said.
People need at least seven hours of sleep every night for optimal cognition and memory, Avidan said. Students who pull all-nighters to study for exams are likely to see lower scores because they’ll struggle to remember the material and make good judgments, he added.
Chronic or prolonged sleep deprivation compounds cognitive impairments with physiological health risks, such as diabetes, obesity, heart issues, depression and impaired immunity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One may even develop symptoms of narcolepsy and experience sleep paralysis and hallucinations, Avidan said.
Another risk of chronic sleep deprivation is the development of delayed sleep phase circadian rhythm disorder, or a mismatch between one’s sleep pattern and the environment, Avidan said. This can make it difficult for students to wake up in time for their morning classes.
“Instead of waking up and going to bed within the sleep time in Los Angeles, their circadian rhythm is in Honolulu,” Avidan said.
Avidan suggested some measures students can take to improve their ability to sleep well. For example, electronic screens emit blue light that disrupts users’ circadian rhythms, so students should avoid using them from 9 p.m. onward, he said.
While “night modes” on phones lower brightness and claim to filter blue light, they are ineffective, he added.
Sleep-deprived students should take a strategic 15- to 20-minute power nap between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and return to a regular sleep schedule. Caffeine is a poor replacement for sleep because of its tendency to cause addiction, irritability and anxiety, Avidan said.
Those who find it difficult to voluntarily fall asleep should consult a physician, Avidan said.
Although many students know the costs of sleep deprivation, several said they struggle to maintain a regular sleep schedule on top of their other commitments, especially school, work or extracurriculars.
Josh Moon, a rising fourth-year philosophy student, said he has difficulty finding enough time for sleep because he commutes from Irvine to UCLA, and works 15 to 20 hours at his family’s restaurant.
“I always do my homework late at night because I just can’t wake up and get to work immediately,” Moon said. “But sometimes, I’ll just put it off until tomorrow because I almost crashed on the way home.”
Moon said he thinks a lack of personal time management skills are partly to blame for the high rates of sleep deprivation he sees among his peers. However, he added he thinks personal and environmental factors can also make it difficult for students to form and maintain good sleep habits.
“Even the most diligent students that I know, they still don’t get enough sleep as they want,” Moon said.
Naomi Raal, a rising fourth-year geography and environmental studies student, said her sporadic insomnia worsened a small extent after she transferred to UCLA. She said the fast pace at UCLA makes it difficult to schedule enough time for sleep.
“Most of the people I know here are either involved with clubs or they have a job or internship,” Raal said. “It’s unrealistic to expect people to take no downtime.”
Raal said she knows resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services might help with time management and sleep deprivation. However, she said she thinks many resources are not well-known or accessible.
“I have some friends that wanted to use CAPS, and I wanted to use it too, to talk about my insomnia, but the waitlist is often pretty long and you’re only allowed a few visits,” Raal said.
Moon said he thinks UCLA can do more to help sleep-deprived students by offering sleep pods or reclining chairs with domes to block out light. He said this would be useful for commuters that often spend most of their day on campus and need a space to nap.
“Sleeping pods would be amazing,” Moon said. “I don’t really have anywhere to just take a nap on campus, so sometimes it’ll be in my car.”
Ventura said the quarter system makes time management more difficult, especially around midterms and finals season. A semester system would help spread out the workload, she said.
“When I was at community college, I was not nearly as sleep deprived as I am here,” Ventura said. “I had more time to actually engage with the material, rather than just cram for it.”