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Circadian science Sleeping troubles

Sleep Regularity + Students = An A+ Idea

College, as any student can attest to, is a hectic life.

Look no further than my past spring semester for a prime example of this. Taking multiple difficult classes while managing club activities and a social life was a whirlwind that was both exhausting and invigorating at the same time. The thorn in my side, however, was Advanced Calculus, a class for proving the underlying mechanics that we used in Calculus 1 and 2.

In my defense, Advanced Calculus is a difficult class even for math majors. They say if you’re able to pass it, you can get a math degree! I’m relieved to say I managed to scrape by and am on my way to finishing up my undergraduate degree in math (and computer science) next year.

I passed—isn’t that all that matters? Yet, with all the things I want to do in my college years, I found myself wondering: is there room for more optimization? I couldn’t help but think of the story of the British Cycling Team and their transformation from being the worst cycling team in the sport to utterly dominating it in a few years. What did they do, exactly? They accumulated little optimizations that eventually compounded into huge advantages. Some of these tiny changes include wearing more aerodynamic racing suits, testing different massage gels for faster recovery, and (drumroll, please) using better  pillows and mattresses for sleep.

I’m convinced now more than ever that sleep is a severely underrated optimization in anyone’s life (exponentially more so for shift workers). Yet for students, the reigning sentiment is that we must fuel ourselves with Monster in order to work late into the night, whether that’s studying for finals, cranking away on projects, or catching up on assignments. Sacrificing sleep to stuff our heads with lecture material is tradition, but does this really work?

Well, maybe not. In “Irregular sleep/wake patterns are associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing”, Phillips et al. were able to find a compelling correlation between sleep regularity and average GPA by using a metric called the Sleep Regularity Index. This index calculates the probability of an individual being in the exact same state (aka sleep or awake) 24 hours later at any point in time. They found that an increased SRI correlated with a higher GPA. In fact, during a 30-day period, there was a considerable gap in GPA between the regular and irregular sleepers: 3.72 (Regular) versus 3.42 (Irregular). Importantly, they found no such relation for GPA and sleep duration. In other words, you might be throwing your grades off track simply by staying up later than usual, even if your overall sleep duration averages out to a decent amount.

Now, association doesn’t necessarily mean causality. There’s a lot that goes into a grade. Sleeping regularly by itself won’t be the reason why you ace a final, but it can certainly tilt the odds in your favor. One fact the study highlighted was that an irregular sleep schedule had the same effect as traveling westward by two to three time zones. I imagine that being jet-lagged isn’t the most optimal state to study in. And that feeling of jet lag could negatively compound upon itself over multiple days, adding up to a pretty big effect.

A nice thing about the sleep regularity index is that you don’t need Advanced Calculus to calculate it—there are multiple versions of code to calculate it online. And if sleep regularity is key, as it sure seems like it is, then optimizing everyday life around a consistent bedtime is probably for the best. That’s something for college kids everywhere to keep in mind when life gets hectic again this fall!

This blog post was written by Jessica So, one of Arcascope’s interns. Thanks, Jessica, for your hard work!