Sleeping Longer and Better in College
Sleeping Longer and Better in College
Fer Gregory /

When you’re juggling classes, work, homework, friends, and extracurricular activities, there isn’t much time left for sleeping. Reports generally agree that college students aren’t sleeping enough, but just how many hours are enough? How do you make sure you get the sleep you need?

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How many hours of sleep do I need?

Every student’s sleep needs are different. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that 18- to 25-year-olds aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night, but anywhere in the range of six to 11 hours may be appropriate. Other sources, particularly many campus health centers, are more generous with their estimates. College students, they say, need more than eight hours a night.

Most sources tend to agree on one thing: College students aren’t sleeping nearly enough. A University of Cincinnati study surveyed about 200 college students regarding their sleep patterns. More than half of the participants slept fewer than seven hours a night.

It’s important to note that if you were in bed at 12:00 am and your alarm went off at 7:00 am, you may not have actually gotten seven full hours of sleep. Factor in the time it will take you to fall asleep (usually 10 to 20 minutes) and adjust your bedtime accordingly. Experiment with different bedtimes and wake-up times. Once you’ve gotten to the point where your body is regularly waking up naturally around the time your alarm is set to go off, you’ve found your ideal amount of sleep. You can also track your sleep patterns with a Fitbit or an Apple Watch; these devices monitor your heart rate to determine when you’re asleep and when you’re awake. If you know that you spend an average of 40 minutes awake each night, you’re going to want to adjust your bedtime again.

In sum, what it comes down to is you. When you get the quality and quantity of sleep that your body needs, you will wake up feeling well rested and energized for the day.

What happens if I don’t get enough sleep?

If you don’t get adequate sleep, you could begin to build a sleep deficit. This is the difference between how much sleep you need and how much sleep you actually get each night. Sleep deficits build up over time; a few minutes here and there add up to quite the debt. Unfortunately, “sleeping it off” in one or two nights isn’t enough to combat a sleep deficit. Instead you need to get consistently more sleep than usual over a long period of time to get back into your normal sleeping pattern.

Building up a sleep deficit doesn’t just make you feel tired in the mornings. Sleep deprivation weakens your immune system, puts your mental health and well-being at risk, and decreases your academic and athletic performance.

What are some of the signs of sleep deprivation?

You may be sleep deprived if you have trouble controlling your emotions, getting out of bed, or paying attention. If you sleep in for more than two hours on your days off, your body is telling you that it needs more sleep during the week to function better.

Why is sleep important?

Sleep helps you and your body:

  • Retain information
  • Concentrate
  • Exercise good judgment
  • Improve memory
  • Ward off stress
  • Rest and repair muscles
  • Release growth hormones
  • Control appetite
  • Recharge your mind
  • Look your best

In short, for college students, sleep is a big factor in both health and academic success.

How does my body determine whether I’m going to sleep?

Two body systems work in tandem to regulate your sleep cycle:

  • Circadian rhythm is the formal name for your body clock. It is monitored by the hypothalamus in your brain. These rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle, regulating biological, mental, and behavioral changes throughout the day. While humans naturally respond to light and rest during darkness, some are more likely to be “morning people” while others are “night owls.” These variations are due to individual differences in circadian rhythms. As such, most adults cite their strongest desire to sleep between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. or 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.
  • Sleep/wake homeostasis keeps track of the amount of time that has passed since you woke up. This system simply indicates that you will become more tired the longer you stay awake.

Because these biological mechanisms work together, you will experience natural lulls and moments of alertness throughout the day. While they are the biggest and most consistent determinant in how well you sleep, external factors also play a role. These include:

How can I improve my sleeping habits?

  • Go to sleep when you’re tired. It may be tempting to stay up binge-watching Netflix or hanging out with friends, but if your body indicates that it’s tired, listen to those circadian rhythms. Pay attention to yawns, drooping eyelids, and low energy levels. You know what they mean.
  • Don’t oversleep on the weekend. Sleeping in too long is a sign that you aren’t getting enough sleep during the week. It can also throw your sleep schedule off kilter. When you snooze until noon, sleep/wake homeostasis suggests you probably won’t fall asleep early that night.
  • Avoid all-nighters. Staying up all night may be the only way you can finish an essay or cram for a test before the deadline. The unfortunate truth is that even if you ace your project, you won’t feel good tomorrow. You may not even remember what you read since research by Science of Us suggests that people running on little sleep can only concentrate for 10 minutes at a time. All-nighters elevate your stress level, lower your immune system, and affect your ability to focus. It’s also hard to recover from an all-nighter. You may feel fatigued for the next few days. Start on your projects early, and if you must pull an all-nighter, apologize to your body by staying hydrated, limiting your caffeine intake, and eating right.
  • Don’t take long naps. Power naps are 20–30 minutes maximum, and they give you a short-term energy boost (a few hours). Napping any longer interferes with homeostasis. If you know you’ll have to stay awake late tonight or if you want to improve your focus for an assignment, by all means take a nap, but don’t overdo it. Avoid naps that are late in the day, and set your alarm so that your power nap doesn’t turn into a three-hour affair.
  • Exercise. Working out helps you stay alert during the day and feel tired at night. A recent study at Oregon State University observed the effects of exercise on sleep. Participants noted a 65% improvement in the quality of their sleep when they were active during the day.
  • Cut off your caffeine supply eight hours before bedtime. Caffeine in tea, coffee, and chocolate has stimulating effects to give you a pick-me-up during the day, but make sure its effects have worn off before you crawl into bed. It can stay in your system for up to eight hours.
  • Nix the nicotine. Nicotine, like caffeine, is a stimulant, but it doesn’t leave your bloodstream nearly as quickly. Depending on your body size and the amount of nicotine, it could take a few days to flush it out of your system.
  • Go easy on the partying. While alcohol can help you get to sleep, it isn’t necessarily quality sleep. When your body is processing alcohol, you are less likely to fall into the deep stages of REM sleep and more likely to wake up before you're fully rested. You may also have to wake up throughout the night to urinate.
  • Eat an early dinner. Like alcohol, a late meal can help lull you to sleep, but the quality of your slumber may suffer. Most sources, including the Department of Health and Human Services, recommend eating your last meal a few hours before bedtime. Otherwise, you may experience indigestion and heartburn that can interfere with the quality of your sleep.
  • Put your electronics away before bedtime. Light from your devices acts as a stimulant, which is the last thing you need when you’re trying to fall asleep. Set your phone face down on your bedside table so that it doesn’t emit light every time you receive a text. Switch it to silent or alarm-only mode, too.
  • De-stress. If you aren’t feeling tired when bedtime rolls around, taking a bath, journaling, listening to soothing music, and reading can help you relax.
  • Use your bed primarily for sleeping. Your bed is comfortable, but it’s not the best place to do homework or take phone calls. When you start surfing the web from bed, it becomes less of a sanctuary for relaxation and sleep. Keep the homework on the desk, the food on the table, and the phone calls in the living room. Use your bed for what it was made for: sleeping.
  • Deck out your bed. Sometimes an uncomfortable mattress is at fault for poor sleep. Add padding and support to your mattress with a pillow top pad or foam topper. Replace your pillows every couple of years (maybe less often if you use pillow protectors) or whenever the stuffing needs fluffing before every use.
  • Deck out your bedroom. What else do you need that can help you sleep? Curtains for your window block out sunlight and earplugs block out noise. You may want a fan or space heater so that you can better regulate your temperature when the seasons change.
  • Abide by quiet hours. When you live with roommates or housemates, it can be tough to coordinate your schedules. Talk it over and agree to follow quiet hours. You might suggest low noise between 11:00 p.m. and 9:00 a.m. on weekdays, for example. Everyone should have headphones.
  • Monitor your sleep. Start a sleep journal or track your sleeping with your Fitbit or an app. Sleep Cycle uses the microphone and motion sensor on your smartphone to track your movements during sleep. It can determine when you are in light, dreamless sleep or the deepest stages of REM sleep. It also has a gentle alarm feature. Pick a 30-minute window of time during which you’d like to wake up; the app’s alarm will ring when you enter the lightest phase of sleep during that time frame.

If you’ve tried everything but you still have trouble falling asleep, this could be a sign of a more serious condition. You should talk to your doctor if you frequently and persistently (three or four nights a week for at least a month) have trouble falling asleep or staying awake. If you sleepwalk or have nightmares that interfere with your sleep, consider seeing your doctor. Untreated, sleep disorders can be frustrating, exhausting, and dangerous.

Page last updated: 03/2019