Sleep deprivation in students is worse during winter. Here’s what you can do about it.

A student rests her head while studying in the University Library. Photo by Julieann Tran | The Signal

Whether it’s due to stress about the economy or national election, or those pesky smartphones, young people across the country are getting less sleep than ever before. Dr. Daniel Wachtel, Psy. D, is a psychologist who specializes in health psychology, which entails the psychological mechanisms behind some physical illnesses and how psychology can help remedy them. His studies include the psychology behind chronic sleep deprivation. Dr. Wachtel spoke to The Signal about some of the reasons why people are more tired in the winter, and what people can do in general to combat sleep debt.

“There are types of depression that come about in the winter. There is a diagnosis called seasonal affective disorder, and that’s basically a fancy word for the ‘winter blues,’” Wachtel said.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by depressive symptoms, like low energy and anhedonia (losing interest in activities that once brought you pleasure). SAD can also lead to sluggishness and sleep problems, which may explain why some people struggle with excessive tiredness during the winter.

In addition to SAD, Wachtel said it’s often difficult for people to get enough sunlight during the wintertime. Ultraviolet (UV) light therapy can help remedy this problem. Natural sunlight contains UV light rays, so using a lamp that mimics the sun’s rays can help the body produce vitamin D, an essential vitamin that many people are deficient in, especially in the colder winter months. However, it is important to limit one’s exposure, because too much UV light can cause skin cancer in susceptible peoples. Some people may also benefit from vitamin D supplements to help SAD.

Dr. Hatem Asad, M.D., specializes in sleep medicine. He describes the population of individuals who suffer from sleep deprivation as diverse. They can include those who suffer from recurring bouts of depressive disorder, people who are overstimulated at night from the blue light emitted their phone or computer screens, or people who work the night shift. People who are exposed to significant amounts of light in the evening time throw off their circadian rhythms, the body’s natural “clock” that regulates sleep scheduling. Asad also recommends UV light therapy for individuals struggling to adhere to a working sleep schedule.

More than just being an issue of overuse of smartphones, though, insomnia arises any time of year, causing psychological problems. The majority of college students lack sufficient sleep, regardless of season. Like most adults, college students slumber less than the recommended seven to nine hours a night. Students actually report significantly more daytime tiredness than other adults, suggesting that a plethora of extracurricular activities, jobs, and social obligations, on top of the demands of schoolwork, take a toll even on America’s youngest adults.


Titilope Akinwe, a senior studying neuroscience and pre-med, is also the president of the Collegiate Neuroscience Society. She’s also working on a research project, and is on the board of Georgia First Generation and the Creative Writing Collective. She estimates that she averages around five to six hours of sleep per night. Titilope said she always feels like she could be studying more, thus sacrificing sleep.

“I know I should [sleep],” Titilope said, “but my body [still] functions.”

Amy Andrelchik, a junior chemistry major, logs anywhere between three to seven hours per night. In addition to being a student in the Honors College, she currently interns for the Department of Defense and struggles to maintain a work-life balance.

“School definitely gets in the way of my sleep -you either stay up late doing it or you stress out because you haven’t finished everything. Work not so much, but it definitely interferes with the amount time I have left to do my homework, ” Andrelchik said.

Americans work longer hours than those in other developed countries, retire later in life, and are more likely to be “plugged in” for teleworking when they are off the clock. Constant stress from work and money can make it difficult to transition from work mode to sleep mode. In a cruel twist of irony, sometimes even trying to get more sleep can exacerbate long-term wakefulness. Stressing over not being rested enough for the next day’s work can trigger anxiety that disrupts normal sleep patterns.

“The thoughts can then lead to behaviors, and people start doing all kinds of things – I’ve had patients who come in and develop new behaviors, such as getting up in the middle of the night and eating a big meal, thinking that that would put them to sleep,” Dr. Wachtel said.

Asad thinks of insomnia as a symptom of psychological and physiological issues, not as a disease in itself. Episodes of sleeplessness can precede depressive phases or spells of anxiety. Insomnia can also be a result of severe pain that keeps one awake or be the result of other underlying illnesses. Asad believes the only way to solve a patient’s sleep issues is to identify and settle the latent cause. The long term solution is not sleeping pills, but rather adjusting habits and lifestyle.

Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to poorer cognitive performance, lower grades, and irritability. More than short-term dysfunction, not getting enough rest is linked to significant health issues, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and low immune function. There is a strong association between not getting enough sleep and shortened lifespan, reinforcing the notion that sleep is absolutely necessary to function, despite the glorification of running on little rest. Sleep plays a vital role in consolidation of memory, muscle recovery, and even emotional responses. If that recovery time is insufficient, the body and brain run suboptimally.

“I think we glorify putting work over sleep too often. Telling people they’re not allowed to relax because work is more important is total bullshit. We’re human beings not robots,” Andrelchik said.