The summer after my junior year of high school, I found myself waking up at 7 a.m. every morning, without bothering to set an alarm. The sun came out, the day got going, and I couldn’t stay in bed any longer. Over the past week of break, something similar happened — I found myself naturally getting up anywhere between 7:45 and 8:30, ready for a jump-start on the day. I’d elected a number of morning classes this semester in the interest of getting myself up and going, getting my coursework done early so I could leave my afternoons open for working on assignments. But time management hasn’t been a strong suit lately, and sometimes homework has gotten away from me. More often than I’d have liked, I’ve found myself still awake at midnight, trying to finish the reading for a class at 8:30 the next morning.

I know I’m not alone when I say I haven’t really been getting enough sleep this winter. According to a study conducted by the National College Health Assessment, roughly 19 percent of all students at the University of Michigan, both graduate and undergraduate, have some kind of trouble sleeping. This can be associated with trauma, emotionally disturbing events or even a lack of exercise during the week; regardless of cause, over 30 percent of students did not feel adequately rested for five days out of the week.

“We know a lack of sleep impacts grades, but we’re not so sure about its effects on mood or the breakdown between different majors,” said Dr. Shelley Hershner, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s sleep lab, where tests and treatments for disorders such as sleep apnea are conducted. Hershner also practices at University Health Service, where she works to educate students about sleep in an effort to improve their sleep behaviors. “One of the primary functions of sleep is learning and memory,” Hershner said, adding, “We don’t know the entire purpose of sleep, but I would say one part of it is long-term potentiation,” that is, committing new information to long-term memory.

While I’ve prided myself on getting enough sleep, more or less, over the course of my education, Hershner said many students don’t feel the same way:

“For a lot of people, not getting enough sleep is almost like a badge of honor.” However, lack of sleep has a definite negative impact on academic performance. As Hershner points out, “You’re spending thousands to get your education, but sleep is one of the processes that allow you to learn.” Other impacts of too little sleep include a weakened immune system and a greater secretion of hormones that make you hungry. The benefits of a full night’s rest greatly outweigh the consequences of cutting into the time when you should be sleeping.

Short naps can help to make up the difference for those who can’t quite fit eight hours in each night, and Hershner quoted one study that showed a six-minute nap improves memorization by 11 percent. For those who take more than half an hour to fall asleep, naps may not be the best way to increase the amount of rest they get in a day. Instead, Hershner recommends getting to bed just 15 minutes earlier, or getting up 15 minutes later — if you can manage either or even both, for a total of 30 extra minutes, it can have a real impact.

Besides fitting in more minutes or hours of sleep each day, Hershner reminded me that students should also be more mindful of late-night caffeine or use of technology. The light given off by screens interrupts the production of melatonin, a hormone that signals the body to start preparing for sleep, Hershner explained. And caffeine can last for up to eight hours in your system, meaning that a late-afternoon coffee could leave you unable to fall asleep until sometime early the next morning. Hershner also told me of instances where people can’t fall asleep right away and start surfing Facebook or listening to music in an effort to relax, when really, all they’re doing is waking themselves up more.

My goal for each evening is always to take an early shower, get in bed before 11, and promptly turn out the lights. Over the past couple of months — OK, for the majority of my young-adult life — I haven’t been very on top of these goals, but it doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying. Just knowing what to be aware of — avoiding bright lights and caffeine — can help. If I can, I like to read for pleasure or write in a journal before I turn off the lights, which is a more effective way of relaxing than staring at a screen. To this day, I have managed not to pull an all-nighter — what’s not finished in the late afternoon, I get around to in the morning.

“We spend a third of our life in sleep. It’s vital,” Hershner reminded me. I’m all for a good night’s rest, if for no other reason than because it gives shape to my days. It rejuvenates body and mind, leaving me refreshed and better prepared for whatever the next day might hold. And I’ve found it’s a great excuse for eating breakfast.

If you’re interested in finding out more about your own circadian rhythms and whether you’re more of a “morning” or “evening” person, Hershner recommends this simple questionnaire.

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