Sleep scientist suggests safer snoozing styles

By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer, Video by Grace Smith | Broadcast Reporter

A Baylor sleep expert shared tips for sleeping healthily and efficiently, especially through prioritizing sleep and avoiding factors that negatively affect typical sleep patterns.

Dr. Michael Scullin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, researches the effects of sleep on physiological and neurological functions. His next study will examine the effects of insufficient sleep on creativity among freshmen.

Scullin said his most important tip is to avoid distractions and prioritize getting a full eight hours of sleep each night.

“The most important factor is that you prioritize your sleep. There’s tons of things that we could be doing across our 24 hours, and how are you dividing up your time?” Scullin said. “How much of that time is going to sleep versus to school work versus to social life versus junk time—trash can time that doesn’t really feed into your life or wellbeing.”

Cutting back on sleep can have serious negative effects. Scullin said these include deterioration of physical and mental health.

“The main thing students lose when they don’t get eight hours of sleep is everything,” Scullin said. “You’re five times more likely to catch a cold if you’re sleeping five hours a night than if you’re sleeping eight hours a night… We know that there’s greater incidence of depression and anxiety and panic attacks in individuals who are sleeping less.”

Sleep loss also affects cognitive performance. San Antonio junior Sam Ledoux said he deals with these negative effects after staying up late to study.

“On average I try to shoot for seven or eight hours a night, but in terms of tests, I usually get four hours of sleep,” Ledoux said. “It affects my grades very poorly, but it is very hard to time manage in college and I feel like that is super crucial.”

Sleep-deprived students may try to catch up on sleep, but this has downsides as well. Scullin said sleep loss is cumulative, and making up for that lost time can throw the body off its rhythm.

“Trying to catch up on sleep is a little bit of a dangerous game, and the reason why is that you’re altering your circadian rhythms,” Scullin said. “You’re tricking your brain into thinking that the sun is rising and the sun is setting at different times than it actually is.”

Regularly napping to make up for lost sleep has similar effects. While the occasional nap is fine, Scullin said, students who regularly supplement a good night’s rest with midday naps should develop healthier sleep habits.

“A lot of students who are cutting back on sleep to six hours a night or five hours or worse will say that they make up for it by taking a nap during the afternoon. Stop doing that,” Scullin said. “If you’re running on fumes and you’ve got to take a nap— fine, take that nap. But if it’s part of your daily schedule or you’re doing it three or four or more times every single week, stop doing that.”

Scullin said regular napping distorts circadian rhythms in the same way catching up on sleep does.

“It’s impeding the quality of your night- time sleep, it’s making it harder to sleep and it’s frankly changing your sleep physiology at night so that you’re not getting as good a quality of sleep,” Scullin said. “It’s also altering your biological rhythms so that it makes it harder to feel alert when you’re supposed to be feeling alert and it also makes it harder to feel sleepy when you’re supposed to be feeling sleepy.”

Scullin’s passion for sleep is a result of personal experience. He said he didn’t sleep well for many years beginning in high school until one day “the light bulb went off” and he changed his sleeping habits.

“Everything got better when I was getting better sleep,” Scullin said. “Getting good sleep is good news and it’s sad to see people running on six hours or five hours or worse of sleep… I think when you see that, you want to help people.”