Dissecting the UC Santa Barbara Sleep Challenge with Dr. Sharleen O’Brien

Illustration by Alyssa Long

Alexis Crisostomo

Staff Writer

This month UC Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Health and Wellness Center digitally hosted its annual UCSB Sleep Challenge. The new version of this seven-day challenge asked students to complete at least seven out of nineteen modules, spanning a variety of sleep-related topics such as sex, relationships, and food. 

With this challenge, the Health and Wellness Center continues to conduct sleep research regarding the effectiveness of their sleep education program. The Bottom Line (TBL) sat down with the Director of Health and Wellness Dr. Sharleen O’Brien for insight into the challenge and the importance of sleep.

TBL asked Dr. O’Brien, “What led you, personally, to be interested in this kind of research?”

“Regardless of where you are in life, getting a good night’s sleep provides a “helpful edge,” Dr. O’Brien explained. She understands that some nights a person may have a restless night, but sometimes these nights could turn into a larger problem. Dr. O’Brien is interested in learning about effective ways to educate people about sleep health and help students create consistent sleeping habits.

The Sleep Challenge is designed as an educational program for just this purpose: pairing educational content with everyday activities to help students. Dr. O’Brien described how the pandemic prompted her team to expand all of their online offerings to students; allowing for a range of broader topics for them to choose from. 

Ultimately, the goal is for students to become curious about their own sleep needs. Dr. O’Brien stresses that this challenge is not intended to be a treatment process, and if students’ sleep problems do not resolve with these strategies, they are encouraged to work with other, more appropriate health professionals. 

TBL also asked, “why is sleep so important, especially for students?”

“Most people need at least seven or more hours to feel and perform their best, so it’s important to recognize that ‘getting by’ is different than thriving.”

Dr. O’Brien emphasized that we simply function better throughout the day with sufficient sleep. From encountering daily challenges to handling things with patience, our ability to respond to frustrating experiences is much better when we are well-rested. This is especially true for students and academic performance. According to the 2019 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment data conducted by Dr. O’Brien’s department, “30 percent of students reported that sleep difficulties were impacting their academic performance.”

“Most people need at least seven or more hours to feel and perform their best, so it’s important to recognize that ‘getting by’ is different than thriving.”

Lack of sleep is the third leading issue impacting academic performance. Sleep improves students’ memory and learning performance, much of which is attributed to the maintenance of our sleep cycle. This includes our ability to get both adequate deep sleep and REM sleep, which is when your eyes move rapidly without sending visual information to the brain. 

Dr. O’Brien explains that it is important for adults to get at least eight hours of sleep in order to get the best benefits, such as better memory and more ease in learning new material. However, if you tend to study or work long hours that often go into the evening, research suggests that naps are also helpful. 

“A short power nap taken mid-afternoon (approximately between 1-3 p.m. to avoid disrupting sleep), can be a very helpful strategy to optimize your ability to perform at your best” Dr. O’Brien stated. This is helpful to keep in mind, especially as Gauchos enter midterm season. 

Dr. O’Brien recommends one of her favorite books, “The Promise of Sleep” by William Dement, MD., for more information regarding the hygiene of sleep.