sleep deprivation

Sleep Deprivation: Is it Really That Bad?

By Natalie White
Updated: July 8, 2020

From your first day in law school to your last days cramming for the bar exam, sleep is often your last priority. As you try to memorize all the legal jargon, read case after case, and balance it all with your social life, you will have a lot of late nights and early mornings.

We have grown so used to sleep deprivation that it seems to be only a minor inconvenience. We may not want to admit how much sleep can affect us. However, studies have repeatedly shown that sleep deprivation has a significant impact on how we function. It is critical that you get sufficient sleep so you can perform at your highest capacity.

Is it Really That Bad?

It seems like everyone does it. As an undergraduate in college, almost every day a student in my class would admit to pulling an all-nighter to study for a midterm or sleeping for only two hours after a Parks and Rec marathon. Sleeping habits often continue to deteriorate in law school, where there is added pressure from class rankings and employment searches. Many individuals studying for the bar exam work full time and balance family responsibilities with their bar preparation as well. Sleep seems to be a luxury, only available at some unknown, unseen future date.

Despite its prevalence, sleep deprivation has real effects. Sleep affects how you feel, but more importantly for law students, it affects how you think. Lack of sleep causes lack of focus. Words swim on the page, heads droop towards the book, and complex ideas fall to pieces. When you are studying and memorizing the law, you need focus. Yes, you can grab some energy drinks and try to force focus, but you will not think the same or have the same stamina without real sleep.

Sleep deprivation, not surprisingly, has been shown to cause frustration and anxiety. Irritable behavior and mood swings are common symptoms. This seems obvious—everyone has experienced some angry outbursts when their morning alarms pull them out of peaceful sleep. However, the emotional impact of sleep deprivation can last all day. During sleep, the body balances hormones, consolidates learning and memories, and restores the body. When sleep is cut short, the body creates an overabundance of stress hormones called cortisol. Excess cortisol not only causes unneeded stress and anxiety, but physiologically causes issues too. Cortisol damages the hippocampus—the area of the brain that encodes and recalls memories—making all the studying you did much less effective and much harder to access later on.

Another thing the body regulates during sleep is your digestive system. When you have a sleep deficiency, your body stimulates your appetite. Daydreaming about french fries and milkshakes? High fat, high carbohydrate foods are among the most common food cravings. Sleep deprivation can also increase the release of insulin, which means that those snacks are more likely to become belly fat.

Sleep deprivation can also be related to more serious sleeping disorders, which carry numerous other health and cognitive risks. One study found that 27% of undergraduate students had a sleeping disorder, and it is predicted that 23% of American adults live with sleeping disorders. Sleeping disorders make sleep difficult even when you are not preparing for long tests, and could greatly impact your overall mental health. Lack of sleep is correlated with higher levels of depression.

On the other hand, healthy sleep increases your focus and attention. It will also increase your memory. During sleep, your brain reviews the events of the day and chooses which memories will become long term memories. Without enough sleep, your brain will not correctly consolidate those memories. As a note, sleep consolidation is most effective for memories closest to when you fall asleep, so the best time to study is right before you go to bed. It is a better idea to review the material and sleep on it than stay up all night using rote memorization.

How to Sleep Better

So if you want to sleep better, what do you do?

First, you have to make the choice. Move sleep up on your priority list. Make a plan for change. Perhaps you face sleep deprivation because of unavoidable work conflicts or screaming children—but oftentimes you choose it. You just need to get that last cramming session in or read the cases for tomorrow. Or perhaps you just need to finish the last episode in your binge watching craze. Rarely do you really need those extra hours, and many times you can, and should, simply decide to go to bed. Choose to sleep, get a clear mind, and start again tomorrow.

What if you have trouble sleeping? If you already have a habit of late nights, it can be hard to adjust to a new schedule. You might just find yourself staring at the ceiling, watching the time tick away. Here are a few tips on how to sleep better:

  • Routine. Follow a routine before you go to bed. Stop using electronics an hour before bed—the blue light from your devices’ screens can keep you from falling asleep. Avoid eating two to three hours before bed. Food, especially food or drink containing caffeine, will keep you up. Do not study in your bed, make it a space only for sleeping. Use blackout curtains or a white noise machine to remove distractions when trying to sleep.
  • Exercise. Exercise is an excellent stress reliever, and it will clear your mind and refocus your day. Exercising during the day will also help you fall asleep at night.
  • Naps. The sweet spot for napping is less than 20 minutes or more than 2 hours. Anything in between makes you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, which confuses your brain and can actually make you more tired.
  • Awareness. When I first got a smart watch, my watch would give me a notification every morning of how long I slept the night before and if I woke up during the night. I was very surprised once I started tracking my sleep. It helped me realize that sometimes I would lose an hour or two of sleep because I went to bed late. Tracking your sleep will help you improve your sleeping habits.
  • Get Help. During law school, many students need to get professional help to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. Do not be afraid to get help for anything, especially sleeping disorders. You need to be healthy, feel good, and have a clear mind.

Making time for sleep is difficult. However, getting sufficient sleep will make the difficult things in life—including law school and the bar exam—easier.

About the author

Natalie White is a Crushendo intern studying at BYU and preparing for law school. She likes eating homemade ice cream, driving mopeds, and reading dense legal arguments before bed.