The Importance of Sleep for College Students

Last updated: Aug 6, 2018

College is a matter of dreams and the academic and career aspirations born of those dreams. Sleep problems can turn those dreams into nightmares, causing physical and emotional problems that spiral out of control and land GPAs and hopes of graduating in the trash bin. That’s why the importance of sleep for college students can’t be overstated.

USF student relaxing in a hammock at Castor Beach on campus.

Sleep Deprivation and College Students

“Sleep deprivation” is a label for “the cumulative effect of a person not having sufficient sleep,” according to the American Sleep Association. The condition is common, with more than one-third of the U.S. population not getting enough sleep, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For young adults, eight hours of sleep is thought to be the necessary daily minimum.

A National Institutes of Health report addresses the prevalence among college students of what it labels daytime sleepiness, “defined as the inability or difficulty in maintaining alertness during the major wake period of the day, resulting in unintended lapses into drowsiness or sleep.” The NIH report says:

  • More than 70 percent of college students say they get less than eight hours of sleep a day.
  • Sixty-percent of college students say they are “dragging, tired, or sleepy” at least three days a week.
  • More than 80 percent of college students say loss of sleep negatively affects their academic performance.
  • College students rank sleep problems as the No. 2 cause of difficulties with academic performance. Stress is No. 1.

Causes and Effects of College Students Losing Sleep

Quite literally, sleep deprivation is a major problem for college students. The previously cited NIH study does a deep dive on the reasons why college students lose too much sleep, enough to result in sleep deprivation or daytime sleepiness. Beyond going to sleep too late and/or getting up too early, primary causes of sleep problems fall under these categories:

Inadequate Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is about behavior that hurts or helps a student get enough quality sleep. The term applies to smart scheduling of sleep time, a good sleep environment, use of caffeine and other stimulants, alcohol consumption, and activities before bedtime that negatively affect sleep.

Aspects of college life that negatively affect sleep hygiene include variable class schedules and sleeping patterns, late-night socializing, and early morning obligations.

Alcohol

Almost 12 percent of students who drink say they use alcohol to help them sleep. It does help them get to sleep, but it fragments the second half of the downtime. It also can cause obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder.

Caffeine and Energy Drinks

The effects of caffeine can last for more than seven hours, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Caffeine can be found in many drinks, such as coffee, certain teas, energy drinks, and some sodas.

Caffeine is a primary ingredient of energy drinks. NIH notes that the use of energy drinks “is associated with higher use of alcohol and possibly other drugs, including stimulants.”

Stimulants

College students are more likely than others in their age group to use prescription and nonprescription stimulants. Those who use stimulants are more likely to have trouble falling asleep, are less likely to report deep, restorative sleep, and often report an increase in the use of alcohol and illegal drugs.

Technology

Keeping the digital world out of your sleep space is the focus here. Studies find that:

  • Having a cell phone in your sleeping space can increase daytime sleepiness, reduce the quality of sleep, make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, and result in you waking up throughout the night.
  • Using a computer before bedtime makes it more likely you will experience drowsy driving, daytime sleepiness, and less restful sleep.
  • Playing video games before bedtime makes it harder to fall asleep.

It’s not all about the noise, either. Electronic devices emit light, and exposure to light can reduce the body’s production of melatonin, a natural sleep aid.

Sleep Disorders

Not all hindrances to restorative sleep and productive wakefulness are self-inflicted. Sleep disorders range from obstructive sleep apnea to insomnia, restless legs syndrome, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, and hypersomnia.

The All-Nighter

The all-nighter isn’t a category in the NIH string of causes of sleep deprivation, but the typically forced marathon of studying is addressed, and it appears to have a real downside. Testing indicates that “all-night study sessions are the wrong plan for improved grades and learning.” When you study all night, your body and mind don’t get to recharge. This makes it harder for your brain to recall the facts you studied and makes it harder for you to stay focused during your test.

Plan ahead, so you can study the material multiple times in manageable sections.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

You’re slogging through another semester with too much to do and too little sleep. Aside from constant yawning and sleepiness, fatigue, and irritability, the signs of sleep deprivation can include:

  • Memory issues (that obviously affect learning)
  • Mood swings
  • Weakened immune system
  • Higher risk of diabetes
  • Decreased balance
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Increased hunger and weight gain
  • Greater risk of accidents
  • Trouble concentrating

Common Sense Solutions to College Student Sleep Woes

Beyond the professional assistance available to people with mental and physical problems that affect sleep, there are simple steps you can take to overcome obstacles in getting adequate restorative slumber:

  • Keep the electronics out of your sleep space
  • Build decompression time into your schedule. Have downtime before bedtime that involves minimal activity, including studies.
  • Stay away from caffeine and other stimulants for at least six hours before bedtime.
  • Make your bedroom a safe space for sleeping, not studying, playing video games, or chatting (in any form) on your cell phone.
  • Use earplugs and an eye cover to minimize noise and light.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Skip the booze before bed.
  • Try to follow a regular bedtime schedule, and follow it on weekends, too.
  • Don’t exercise before bedtime. Exercise a few hours before you’re getting ready for sleep.

Sleep Pods at USF

Use Your School’s Resources

Emotional well-being is a foundation for good sleep habits, and resources for achieving it are a staple of campus life at USF.

The professional medical and psychological support system isn’t all that’s available through Health and Wellness, USF. Relaxation Zone offerings include massage chairs, sleep pods, and sleep packs that feature earplugs, soothing teas, eye masks, and tips on avoiding sleep deprivation.

And if you’re losing sleep over admission issues, the USF Office of Admissions is always ready to answer questions about becoming and being a Bull, so contact us online or by phone at 813-974-3350.