When Tarynn Theilig arrived at the University of St. Thomas, she was on her own for the first time, away from parents nagging about bedtime. She quickly fell into a routine.
“I studied at the library until 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday and went out Friday and Saturday,” the senior neuroscience major said.
That meant she got five hours of nightly sleep during the week. Although she tried to make up for it with 12-hour binge-bunking on weekends, she ended up falling asleep in class — a lot.
Then, Theilig took part in a sleep challenge sponsored by the St. Paul university. Like other students in the voluntary program, she was asked to set a consistent schedule for going to bed and waking up. She also was armed with strategies for sleeping tight, including an app to track and evaluate her sleep cycle.
As the 21-year-old from Appleton, Wis., stuck to the routine for several weeks, her drowsiness lifted and she noticed that she felt less overwhelmed by her schedule and that her classroom performance improved.
“It changed my life,” she said. “Now sleep is my top priority. I organize my days around it. I’m cranky if I don’t get my eight hours.”
Theilig is part of a campuswide initiative, in which the St. Thomas faculty and staff aim to set healthy sleep patterns by demonstrating to students the link between slumber, achievement and overall health.
On campuses nationwide, college wellness efforts advise students on healthy habits regarding nutrition, exercise, tobacco, sex and more. At St. Thomas, wellness includes pushing the value of sleep.
Through seminars and dorm chats, personalized programming and nudges from newly trained resident assistants and peer sleep advocates, St. Thomas students are given evidence that pulling all-nighters is counterproductive to their GPA.
“When students study all night, their brains function like they’re drunk for a third of the time,” said Roxanne Prichard, a St. Thomas professor of psychology and neuroscience. “Sleep deprivation has a proven negative effect on academic outcomes.”
St. Thomas uses research and rewards to promote eight hours of sleep. All incoming students take an online assessment that screens for obstacles to solid sleep and gives feedback on how to rest well. The school’s 20-day sleep challenge, “Get More ZZZ’s to Get More A’s,” offered each semester, reinforces better bed habits, using apps, eye masks, earplugs and text reminders to change behavior.
“Bragging about not sleeping starts in college,” said Birdie Cunningham, associate director of health and wellness at St. Thomas. “We’re working to change the culture, because sleep influences every aspect of life.”
With Prichard, Cunningham helped create the nation’s first Center for College Sleep this past spring, housed in the Murray-Herrick Campus Center. It combines Prichard’s academic research and Cunningham’s wellness outreach and preaches the gospel of shut-eye on the St. Thomas campus and beyond.
“Students respond to the science of what we say,” Prichard noted. “There are so many negative outcomes for poor sleep that no one attributes to poor sleep.”
Athletes benefit, too
When she graduates from St. Thomas, Chelsea Akin wants a career promoting workplace wellness.
In her role as a resident assistant, the junior psychology major is practicing on the 36 freshmen she supervises. Akin’s mother-henning extends to sleep coaching; she recently coordinated a sleep challenge on her floor.
“A lot of students are sharing a room for the first time and might live with someone with a different sleep pattern,” she said. “We tell them that sleep should be the priority of the room. If they have classes that start at different times, we remind the early riser not to open blinds or turn on the overhead light and disturb their roommate.”
Akin, 20, models positive habits. She bought blackout curtains for her dorm window and flips on a fan at bedtime to create a sleep-inducing hum. She loves coffee but doesn’t touch the stuff after 3 p.m. Her last act of the night is to dim the hall lights during her final rounds.
“That way, if anyone gets up in the night, they won’t get blasted with brightness that would stimulate them so they couldn’t get back to sleep,” she said.
St. Thomas also has implemented several subtle adjustments to promote sleep.
“Tommies After Dark” activities such as movies and bowling have an earlier 7 p.m. start time. On weekends, the gym opens at 8 a.m. instead of noon, so students can adhere to their rising routines regardless of what day it is. Temperature settings in dorms dip overnight, a nod to research showing that a cooler room enhances deep slumber.
The sleep center has begun to share sleep-enhancing techniques with residential life offices at other schools. More than 50 have taken the College Sleep Environmental Scan, an 11-point assessment that helps colleges determine how to prioritize sleep through campus buildings and policies.
There’s more at stake than 40 winks.
“Sleep has pronounced consequences for mental health. The sleep-deprived are nine times more likely to show signs of depression and 17 times more likely to show symptoms of anxiety,” Prichard said. “Colleges report being overwhelmed by students with mental health problems. This is a modifiable risk factor.”
Prichard’s sleep research has gone deep on its effect on athletic achievement. That’s gotten some of St. Thomas’ sports teams focused on sleeping their way to the top.
“All programs work on nutrition and weightlifting. We were looking for something other teams were not doing that could give us an advantage,” said Glenn Caruso, the head football coach for the Tommies.
Last year, Caruso invited Prichard to tailor a talk for his squad on the importance of hitting the hay. Players began graphing their slumber, and Caruso watched the time his players spent sleeping increase by an average of a half-hour per night.
“I can’t quantify that this means one more win per season or seven more points per game, but it contributes to our holistic approach of physical and mental preparation,” Caruso said. “The typical football mentality is to work more. It can be a hard sell that resting your body improves performance, but our young men are diligent and want the winning edge.”
Theilig thinks learning how to be a better sleeper has helped to improve her game.
“I’m so much more functional,” she said. “I want to be a physician’s assistant. I think these habits will help me succeed on a competitive path — and I’ll be happier, too.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based broadcaster and freelance writer.