Clocks in College

Author: Bree Sarkisian

Your alarm goes off. Snooze three times. Roll out of bed, and splash coffee into a mug on your way out the door. It’s Monday, so today you have an 8am class, followed by work, volunteering, work again, and another class. You won’t get home until 10pm. That’s a lot of hours to be running around, so you are starving by the time the day ends. Sometimes you eat and go to bed right when you get home, sometimes you stay up snacking and studying. Either way, you’re eating late. Your body does not appreciate this kind of schedule.

Tuesday and Thursday will be different than Monday, Wednesday, Friday because of the class schedules, fueling the fire of an already erratic lifestyle. Weekends consist of binge behaviors: binge eating, binge netflixing, binge sleeping, and/or binge drinking—depending on the kind of week you’ve had. Days are even longer during midterms and finals (hello, all-nighters). And every few months with the start of a new term your schedule completely changes again.

To most college students, this is just part of life. However, this erratic lifestyle frequently leads to circadian disruption. When your sleeping and eating schedules are constantly changing, your body struggles to keep up. This usually means fatigue, impaired metabolism, increased stress and anxiety, increased inflammation, decreased immune system, and associated chronic conditions (Arble et al 2010). According to a study done in 2014, 50% of college students report feeling tired throughout the day, and 70% were found to have insufficient sleep at night (Hershner, 2014). In 2006, it was found that undergraduates with earlier wake-up and bed times had better sleep. Those who had greater variability in their schedules had more disturbed sleep (Carney et al, 2006). Indicating that a more structured schedule, that allows for proper sleep, may be beneficial for many college students.

My third year of college I took a class called Metabolic Disorders. We learned about the correlation between diet and major chronic health conditions (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, etc). This doesn’t seem surprising at first; if there’s anything science has taught us about our diets, it’s that what and how much you eat matters. What caught my attention, though, was how often the timing of food also plays a large role in the development of these diseases.

This class introduced me to a paper from Dr. Satchidananda Panda’s lab on time restricted feeding. In a set of experiments, two groups of rats were given high-fat food to eat. One group was only allowed to eat during an 8-12 hour window each day, and the other was allowed to eat freely. The rats that we on a time restricted feeding regimen had less instances of diabetes, obesity, and liver disease (Hatori et al, 2014).

When everything in the health world is a monotonous speech of “eat less, exercise more, and cut out the ice cream,” it was nice to read something that suggested I could keep my junk food (within reason), as long as I allocated it within a small window each day.

That’s not to say that exercise and food type/amount are not important. It does, however, point out a common oversight in the health world: when we do things matters. For college students, this is a hard pill to swallow. The way we survive our courses is by disrupting our circadian rhythms—how can we keep a consistent rhythm when so much of our schedule is out of our control?

Well, it turns out there’s a way to do it that comes naturally to college students: use an app on your phone! Most of us are posting pictures of our food on Instagram anyway—posting it to the myCircadianClock app from Dr. Panda’s lab is an easy transition. Upon learning about this app from our professor, a lot of our class downloaded the app and used it to track our daily food and sleep schedules. We began to restrict our eating times to 10-12 hour windows (for most of us, this meant no more late-night snacking while we cram for midterms—an initially very difficult feat).

As a fairly healthy, fit college student, I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference. It’s easy to ignore the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular problems when you’re 21 and far from the usual onset of those diseases, and most of us don’t think our sleep schedules are that much of a problem. However, within two weeks of using the app to adjust my schedule, I realized I had a huge boost in energy. I slept better, woke up more rested, and didn’t need as much coffee throughout the day. An energized brain made studying more efficient, so staying up late to work became less and less of a necessity. Overall, it was eye opening to realize how disrupted my circadian rhythm had been, and how much it improved my life to fix a problem I hadn’t known existed. Even better, I fixed it without having to cut calories or go through a handful of fad diets—all I had to do was be mindful of my body’s schedule.

College students are part of a group that, almost by definition, struggles with circadian disruption. Most of us aren’t even aware how much we could be damaging our bodies, and definitely are not aware that there are simple and effective ways to modulate these effects. Restoring a proper rhythm might prove beneficial for the sleep and study habits of college students, helping not only their performance in college but also their metabolic health.

Arble DM, Ramsey KM, Bass J, Turek FW. Circadian Disruption and Metabolic Disease: Findings from
Animal Models. Best practice & research Clinical endocrinology & metabolism. 2010;24(5):785 doi:10.1016/j.beem.2010.08.003.

Carney, Colleen E. , Jack D. Edinger , Björn Meyer , Linda Lindman , Tai Istre. Daily activities and
sleep quality in college students. Chronobiology International. 2006; 23(3): 623-37.

Hatori et al. Time-Restricted Feeding without Reducing Caloric Intake Prevents Metabolic
Diseases in Mice Fed a High-Fat Diet. Cell Metabolism. 2014; 15(6):848 – 860.

Hershner, S. D., & Chervin, R. D. Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college
students. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2014;6: 73–84.




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