The Importance of Sleep in College

College culture has created “norms” of staying up late to cram and pulling “all-nighters.” The average college student gets only six hours of sleep per night (and thinks nothing of it) though experts recommend at least seven to nine for optimal functioning. Science has shown that long term sleep deprivation has a negative effect on:

  • Physical health (linked with lower immunity and higher incidents of type II diabetes, lung and heart disease, high blood pressure and injury)
  • Emotional health (linked to irritability, inability to regulate mood and decreased mental outlook)
  • Physical appearance (linked to an increase of the hormone ghrelin which is associated with hunger for high calorie foods, possibly showing why it is also linked to poor weight regulation and obesity)
  • Academic success (linked to poor memory, inability to concentrate and decreased GPA)

Sleep is not just something we do to fill up time; it’s an active, dynamic process that affects every cell and system of the body. If you’re in the 50% of students who feel sleepy every day, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship with sleep!

Since the main reason you’re in college in the first place is to be educated, it’s crucial to realize the strong connection between sleep and learning. German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus coined the term “forgetting curve” to describe the phenomenon that takes place when our brains are introduced to new information. Within 20 minutes of “learning” we forget 40% of the material! However, overnight as you rest, a highly complex restructuring of information is taking place. Information stored in our short-term memory gets moved to our long-term memory in a process known as memory consolidation. Throughout the night, different stages of sleep help with the processing and storage of different types of information. So essentially, when we skimp on sleep, we short-circuit our bodies’ ability to learn new information.

Rather than fall for the idea that we are taking “short cuts” by cramming late into the night, we’d do better to embrace this counterintuitive truth: a good nights’ sleep is worth much more than hours of last-minute study. Not to mention the fact that we often end up “medicating ourselves” with coffee and energy drinks the next day, which aren’t great for our health either.

If you’re in the 70% of college students who categorize themselves as “sleep deprived” what are steps you can take to improve both the quality and quantity of this vital function?

  • Get into a routine. Experts recommend going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day. This can be challenging in college when schedules vary from day to day! But erratic schedules lead to inconsistent, non-restorative sleep. Though tempting, trying to “make up” for lost sleep on weekends has been shown to be generally ineffective.
  • Be aware of screen time. Studies continue to show the negative impact of screens on our sleep. High levels of blue light emitted from phones and other devices suppress the pineal gland, in turn lowering the body’s melatonin production which leads to sleep disruption. Bottom line: minimize screen use, especially the hour before bed!
  • Wind down gradually. It’s not just for kids; studies have shown that big people benefit from bedtime routines that include quiet, relaxing activities (rather than mentally and emotionally stimulating ones). Give yourself time to read for fun, listen to music, pray or do some deep breathing. Keep lighting low and if necessary, buy some ear plugs to drown out dorm room noise. Experts agree that sleep is best when beds are reserved for sleeping, so resist the urge to study in bed.
  • Guard daytime sleep. Napping is generally beneficial, but is best if kept to an hour or less. Naps occurring after 3 PM typically interfere with the nighttime sleep our brains and bodies desperately need, so avoid late afternoon napping.
  • Consider the mouth/sleep connection. Caffeine consumption definitely interferes with sleep, so skip the late afternoon and evening coffee and soda. Though health professionals agree that eating a heavy meal before bed is a bad idea, a small protein snack at bedtime can sometimes improve sleep, especially if you are prone to low blood sugar.

Getting decent sleep can be a game-changer! Yes, college can be stressful and your life is full and demanding, but why not optimize your experience by carving out time for something you really can’t afford to go without?