Improving Sleep

College students are among the most sleep deprived Americans. Some students view being sleep deprived as a point of personal pride—all those sleepless nights must mean they are just working that much harder, right? Perhaps, but sleep researchers have discovered that sleepless nights come at a high cost.

In the short term, sleep deprivation leads to decreased concentration and memory, decreased alertness, increased confusion and fatigue, and lower overall cognitive performance (Pilcher and Walters, 1997). A recent study found that sleepless nights can even bring down your grades. The study reports that college students who experienced 24 hours without sleep once or more during their college careers had lower GPAs than students who had not (Thatcher, 2008).  In the long term, sleep deprivation is related to higher risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health issues, memory and attention deficits, and shorter overall life span (National Sleep Foundation, 2009).

Our bodies need sleep! Sleep helps to consolidate memories and learning and improves mood and energy level. Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours per night. While this can be a challenging number for many college students to meet, there are things you can do to reduce the harm of sleep deprivation and help your body experience the benefits of sleep.

A few good tips for reducing the harm of sleep deprivation:

  • Work around your sleepless night. If you are pulling an all-nighter clear your schedule as much as possible and go to bed early the next night. This will help minimize the impact of 24 hours without sleep on your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Deep sleep is crucial for our brains and bodies. If you can't sleep much, try to at least sleep enough to enter into deep sleep. Deep sleep occurs during the middle portion of the body's four hour sleep cycle, so try to sleep for at least 4 hours.
  • Your sleep environment matters. A dark, cool, quiet sleeping environment is your best bet for good sleep. Ear plugs, white noise machines and sleep masks can help you create a healthier sleep environment even in a dorm room.
  • Naps are powerful! A 20-30 minute "power nap" can help reduce the impact of sleep deprivation. Napping in the late morning or early afternoon is best.
  • Take it easy on the caffeine. Caffeine has a half-life of 3 to 7 hours in the body. Avoid caffeine, heavy meals, smoking and alcohol for several hours before bed so you can fall asleep when you're ready.

 National Sleep Foundation. How much sleep do we really need?  Accessed January 8, 2009.
 Plicher, J. J. and Walters, A. S. How sleep deprivation affects psychological variables related  to college students' cognitive performance. Journal of American College Health. 1997; 46:121-127.
 Thatcher, PV. University students and the "all-nighter": correlates and patterns of students' engagement in a single night of total sleep deprivation. Behavioral Sleep Medicine. 2008. 6:16-31.

Seven Strategies for Successful Sleep