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The COVID-19 pandemic may be stressing out most people, but it has had a surprising upside for college students: They're sleeping better.
That's the upshot of a new study that investigated sleep habits of 139 college students before and after Colorado enacted a stay-at-home order to prevent spread of the new coronavirus.
"In the end, a higher percentage of students were obtaining the recommended amount of sleep necessary for health and cognitive function and learning and performance," said lead author Ken Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study started in January as a way to give students in his sleep physiology class insight into their own slumber habits. After Colorado put a stay-at-home order into effect March 26, Wright realized it offered a chance to study how suddenly changing schedules might affect a good night's sleep.
Students first reported on their sleep habits in late January and early February, then again after stay-at-home orders began. By then, students were taking courses remotely, some from different time zones.
On average, students were sleeping about 30 minutes more each weeknight and 24 minutes on weekend nights than before the stay-at-home order went into effect, the study found.
That meant 92% were getting the seven hours of shut-eye recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And students who had slept the least before the stay-at-home order improved the most -- logging as much as two more hours of sleep each night, the study found. At the same time, their "social jetlag" decreased -- that's the groggy feeling you get after staying up late and sleeping later on weekends and then returning to an earlier schedule on Monday morning.
A majority of these students were already getting decent amounts of sleep, even before COVID-19 restrictions, Wright said.
"The fact that we were able to improve the sleep health of these college students suggests that other populations that have even higher proportions of people that don't meet the recommended amount of sleep, we have an even greater opportunity there," he said.
The one negative: Students were going to sleep later and waking later, which contributes to poor health.
Poor sleep habits can worsen several major health problems, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, and substance abuse, according to the study. And sleep is particularly important during the pandemic -- lack of sleep weakens the immune system, putting people at risk of infection.
"We can go on and on into almost every major health condition," Wright said. "When you're not getting enough sleep, it's altering your physiology in ways that are unhealthy."
Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Clinic at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, looked over the study findings and said they dovetailed with some of her own students' behaviors.
She said the benefits might have occurred because remote classes allowed some students to take classes at flexible times, not early in the morning.
Sleep is a critical issue for college students and one of the biggest barriers to academic performance, Hershner said, adding that students have sleep stressors that other populations don't, with workloads and schedules that vary a lot.
"One of the primary functions of sleep is learning and memory. It's very vital in this age demographic," Hershner said, adding depression and anxiety are prevalent among college students.
"Whatever we can do to improve sleep health is actually going to potentially impact the mental health of students," she said.
Although the study did not consider how behaviors such as substance use, jobs, or social lives affected students' sleep, Wright said it's clear anecdotally that the pandemic has changed commuting times and social lives of many people.
"There are probably a number of factors like that contributing to this," he said.
Wright said another recent sleep study, of 18- to 65-year-olds in Europe, found similar results.
"The fact that we have consistency in different populations, different parts of the world, in very different lockdown situations suggest that these findings are representative of what's happening in other populations," he said.
The findings were published June 10 in the journal Current Biology.