College is a challenging time for sleep. Pulling all nighters, falling asleep in class, attending social functions, or simply staying up late texting or studying can all interfere with sleep on a regular basis. But while a late night here and there is easy to bounce back from, college students should be careful to regularly follow healthy sleep habits.

College students are often short on sleep, but the fact is that students often need sleep more than most. The typical college student needs more than eight hours of sleep, yet often ends up with seven hours or less — sometimes much less. This can have a serious impact on health and learning.

Sleep is especially important to college students, as memory, learning, mood, and mental health all depend on healthy sleep habits. Without enough sleep, academic performance can suffer, mood and mental health may deteriorate, even sleep disorders can develop and further interfere with getting enough rest.

This guide provides college students helpful information for making good sleep decisions. You’ll learn why sleep is so important for college students, what’s at stake in a good night’s sleep, how to spot sleep disorders, what it takes to develop a good sleep routine, and much more.

Consider these facts about college students and sleep:

  • 73 percent of students report sleep problems: only approximately 11 percent of students say they have good sleep. (UMich)
  • Sleep affects the ability to learn, concentrate, and remember. Sleep deprivation in students has been linked to lower GPAs. (UMich)
  • College students are often at risk for depression and anxiety. A lack of sleep can be a factor in these common mental health disorders, especially for students sleeping six hours or less each night. (UGA)
  • Half of college students report feeling sleepy during the day. This is greater than the 36% of adolescents and adults that experience daytime sleepiness. (Nat Sci Sleep)
  • Just four percent of students get seven hours of sleep or more each night. The average length of sleep for students is 5.7 hours. Each month, college students pull 2.7 all nighters. (Nat Sci Sleep)
  • Students know poor sleep is a problem. Eighty-two percent of college students believe sleepiness and a lack of sleep have an impact on their school performance, and students rank sleep second in factors that have a negative impact on academic performance. (Nat Sci Sleep)

Why is Sleep So Important for College Students?

Many college students are chronically short on sleep. On average, college students require eight hours of sleep or more, yet most college students only sleep between six to seven hours each night. This creates a sleep debt that can have a negative impact on learning and health.

In addition to rest, sleep supports healthy brain function and memory consolidation. Without it, college students are at risk of difficulty concentrating and remembering. Students may even increase their risk of depression or anxiety by not sleeping enough.

Sleep is crucial to memory and learning. The hours immediately following a lesson are the most critical period of sleep for memory consolidation. Getting a good night’s sleep after a lesson or review session is more efficient for memory and recall than an all night cram session.

Consequences of Sleep Loss

What’s at stake for students with inadequate sleep? These are common consequences of sleep loss for college students:

  • Moodiness: Numerous studies have sought to establish a connection between lack of sleep and moodiness. One such study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania evaluated subjects who received 4.5 hours of sleep per night for one week. Many subjects noted feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion.
  • Memory problems and impaired brain activity: A report from Harvard Healthy Sleep notes that lack of sleep can negatively impact the three primary brain processes associated with learning: acquisition of information, consolidation of acquired facts into memories, and the ability to recall information once it’s been consolidated. The latter two processes are often impacted the most, as lack of sleep can reduce one’s ability to concentrate and properly sort information.
  • Depression and/or anxiety: In 2017, a group of 42 sleep researchers conducted what is believed to be the ‘largest randomized controlled trial of a psychological intervention for a mental health problem’. Their target: the connection between lack of sleep and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety in college students. According to their findings, 60 percent of the survey’s 3,755 respondents did not get enough sleep on a nightly basis — and that addressing and treating their sleep problems led to improvements in their depression, anxiety, and other mental health effects.
  • Increased risk of accidents: In a recent survey of 1,039 undergraduate students, 16 percent reported falling asleep while driving and 2 percent said they were involved in a vehicular collision. The survey also noted that most ‘near accidents’ involving drowsy, college-age drivers occur between 11pm and 1am.
  • Weakened immune response: Inadequate sleep can dull one’s immune system and make them more susceptible to diseases and infections, according to Diwakar Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “One of the things that happens when we sleep is that we can get a better fever response,” he tells WebMD. “This is why fevers tend to rise at night. But if we are not sleeping, our fever reaction is not primed, so we may not be waging war on infection as best we can.”
  • Lower GPA: According to a study published in Nature and Science of Sleep, there is a link between lack of sleep and grade point average (GPA). The study found that students who received adequate sleep earned an average GPA of 3.24, while those who did not get enough sleep averaged a 2.74 GPA.

Connections between Sleep and Mental Illness

Without adequate sleep, coping skills, mood, memory, and emotional processing are all impaired. This can lead to serious mental illness among college students, including depression, addiction, even suicide.

Anxiety

A lack of sleep can play a role in developing anxiety. Sleep deprivation has been found to amplify anticipatory anxiety in the brain regions that control excessive worrying. Innate worriers are particularly vulnerable to developing more serious anxiety with insufficient sleep. Anxiety can also interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.

Depression

Without enough sleep, we’re often irritable or stressed, but adequate sleep enhances a feeling of well being. There is a close connection between sleep and depression, with 15 to 20 percent of people diagnosed with insomnia developing major depression. One major study indicates that people with insomnia are five times more likely to develop depression.

Suicide

For some students, sleep deprivation becomes even more serious than anxiety and depression, as a lack of sleep can lead to an increase in suicidal thoughts. For each hour of sleep lost, teens report a 42 percent increase in suicidal thoughts. More troubling: that same lost hour of sleep becomes a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts.

Addiction

A night without adequate sleep often puts you in a bad mood, but it can sometimes have a euphoric effect that leads to risky behavior. A sleep deprived brain experiences significant mood swings, which is bad news for good decisions. After a night of missed sleep, healthy young adults may get a boost in euphoria that can potentially lead to poor judgement and addictive behavior.

ADHD

Sleep problems are common among students with ADHD, with as many as 50 percent suffering from sleep problems as well as ADHD. In some cases, sleep problems mimic ADHD symptoms, while in others, a lack of sleep can exacerbate ADHD. ADHD medications may result in sleep problems as well. However, treating sleep issues can often alleviate ADHD symptoms.

Sleep Disorders: Warning Signs and Descriptions

It’s not unusual to have trouble sleeping now and then, especially when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or are simply preoccupied with activities like studying, social engagements, or athletics. But continued sleep problems can indicate a serious sleep disorder that can make it difficult to get adequate restful sleep.

Could you have a sleep disorder? Watch for these warning signs:

  • Fatigue or tiredness even after eight hours of sleep
  • Frequent or long naps
  • Trouble concentrating at school
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and remaining awake
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Falling asleep during everyday activities like watching TV or reading
  • Consistent snoring
  • A tingling, crawling, or irresistible urge to move your legs at bedtime
  • Morning headaches and dry mouth

Insomnia

Insomnia is a difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This typically causes impairment during waking hours. People with insomnia may have trouble falling asleep, wake up during the night, have trouble going back to sleep, wake up too early, or feel tired when they wake up.

Narcolepsy

People with narcolepsy have excessive daytime sleepiness with sudden muscle weakness. With narcolepsy, sufferers may experience episodes of uncontrollably falling asleep during the daytime.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome makes sleeping uncomfortable with itching, tingling, or a creepy crawling feeling along with an urge to move the legs. This often interferes with sleep, as symptoms are typically worse in the evening and throughout the night.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs when breathing is interrupted by sleep. People that suffer from untreated sleep apnea will stop breathing multiple times during a sleep cycle. This is a dangerous condition, as breathing interruptions can deprive the brain and body of the oxygen it needs.

Learn more about sleep disorders with these resources. (sleep disorder links at the bottom of the site)

Athletes and Sleep – Hitting Peak Performance

College athletes tend to have busier schedules than the average student. This section looks at some strategies college athletes can use to effectively manage their time, reduce the risk of injury and improve their performance by modifying their sleep habits.

Sleep Risks Athletes Face

  • Time management: On top of academic demands, they must dedicate several hours each week to practice sessions in the early morning and/or evening. They also carve out time for competitions, many of which take place in different cities and require substantial travel. College athletes that do not get an adequate amount of sleep often see their grades slip — and in many cases, their college admission and athletic participation wrests on their academic performance.
  • Sleep and Injury

  • Injury: The Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics published a study with similar findings. A total of 112 adolescent athletes were surveyed regarding their sleep habits and injury history. The results suggest that nightly sleep habits were one of the ‘best independent predictors of injury’; those who got less than eight hours of sleep per night were 1.7 times more likely to be injured than athletes that got eight or more hours of sleep per night.
  • Getting adequate sleep:  In January 2017, the University of Arizona published results of a study involving 189 college athletes. 68 percent of respondents reported that they had ‘poor sleep quality’; 87 percent said they got less than or equal to eight hours of sleep per night, while 43 percent got less than seven hours per night. Additionally, 23 percent reported ‘excessive levels of fatigue’. Professor Michael Grandner, who co-authored the study, noted that active college students — such as athletes –require eight to nine hours of sleep per night for ‘optimal functioning’. “Student-athletes have a lot of reasons why their sleep would be disturbed,” Grandner explained. “They have a lot of time demands, they have a lot of physical demands, they have a lot of mental demands, and they’re trying to balance athletics, academics and sometimes employment, and this can set up the perfect storm for bad sleep.”
  • Performance: Another recent study looked at sleep patterns and effects in the men’s basketball team at Stanford University. For two weeks, the subjects kept a normal sleep schedule — 6.5 hours per night, on average — and were evaluated for athletic skills like sprinting and shooting the ball. For the next five to seven weeks, each player was ordered to get as much sleep as they could; the average player slept for 8.5 hours per night. As a result, the players’ free-throw and three-point shooting improved by 11 to 13 percent, and the average player cut their 282-foot sprint time by 0.7 seconds.

Every student athlete is built differently, but these studies and others suggest that college athletes need more sleep per night than other students due to their increased activity levels. Eight to nine hours is recommended for most college athletes; those who cannot get enough sleep should speak to their coaching staff about strategies for achieving peak performance both in their sport and in the classroom.

Alcohol and Sleep – How Drinking Affects Sleep Quality

Alcohol plays a role in the college experience for many students. According to a survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 60 percent of students aged 18 to 22 consume alcohol at least once each month — and two-thirds of these respondents reported binge-drinking at least once on a monthly basis, as well.

Alcohol consumption can lead to dire consequences in some cases; 1,825 college student deaths reported in 2015 were attributed to alcohol-related injuries, and nearly 700,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 were assaulted by someone who was drinking or drunk at the time. Additionally, the National Sleep Foundation notes that excessive alcohol consumption can negatively affect sleep in several ways, such as:

  •  Circadian interruption: Alcohol consumption can lead to drowsiness or sleepiness, but it can often cause individuals to wake up in the middle of the night. This is because alcohol increases the production of adenosine — a chemical in the body that triggers sleep onset — but interferes with the production of bodily chemicals that help us remain asleep all night. As a result, those who drink the night before often wake up before they have received an adequate amount of sleep.
  • REM blockage: Alcohol also decreases rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, the deepest and most restorative sleep state, often causing individuals to wake up feeling disoriented, groggy and poorly rested.
  • Breathing difficulties: Consumption of alcohol causes deep relaxation during sleep. Many people who drink sleep with their heads tilted back and mouths open. This can lead to snoring and, in some cases, sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder characterized by temporary loss of breath during sleep; apnea has also been linked to other health problems like heart disease.
  • Bathroom visits: Alcohol is a diuretic — a substance that triggers the need to urinate — and excessive alcohol consumption can irritate the bladder. For this reason, drinking can result in nighttime visits to the bathroom; getting up in the middle of the night affects overall circadian rhythm, and often leaves people feeling tired when morning comes.

College students can mitigate some of these negative sleep effects when they consume alcohol. Avoiding binge drinking or drinking altogether are the best ways to diminish sleep loss from alcohol, but there some strategies for ‘drinking and sleeping’ including the following:

  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before. If you plan to go out drinking on a Friday night, make sure you get at least eight hours of sleep on Thursday night — and avoid alcohol if possible. This will leave you feeling alert and well-rested leading up to your evening out.
  • Eat a full meal that day. Drinking on an empty stomach can lead to nausea and increased intoxication — both of which are detrimental to sleep. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats can all help cut down on these symptoms, and also reduce hangover effects the morning after you go out.
  • Prepare your bedroom or sleep space. Make the bed, clear the floor of objects that might cause you to stumble or trip, have a glass of water handy and make sure the curtains are drawn. This way, you’ll be able to hit the hay as soon as you get home.
  • Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks when you’re out. Water is always the best option, but coffee and soft drinks will also help space out the effects of alcohol consumption. Salty snacks can also provide an adequate buffer. A bad idea: combining caffeine and alcohol. This can lead to increased intoxication, erratic behavior and worse-than-normal hangovers.
  • Drink slowly. By pacing yourself throughout the night, you will decrease the effects of intoxication and, most likely, sleep better as a result. This can be tricky for some students, as the urge to drink more quickly often intensifies as more beverages are consumed.
  • Know your limit – and stick to it. If you tend to get drunk after two beers or glasses of wine, then cut yourself off at that point and avoid the temptation to ‘compete’ with other people who prefer to drink more. You will sleep and feel better.

FAQs from College Students Regarding Sleep

Q: How many hours should college students sleep each night?
A: The average college student requires eight hours of sleep or more.

Q: What’s the best time for college students to sleep?
A: Ideal bedtimes for healthy adults range from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. Most college students are comfortable going to bed around midnight.

Q: Is it better to stay up all night and study for an exam or get a good night’s sleep?
A: Memory and recall functions perform much better after adequate sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may have trouble remembering what you studied the night before, not to mention the lessons covered weeks ago in class.

Q: Is it OK to fall asleep in class? What do professors think of students who sleep in class?
A: Falling asleep in class happens, whether you’re sleep deprived or simply bored. But it’s best to avoid it, as you can get in trouble with professors and miss important information. Professors may understand that college students often suffer from a lack of sleep, but most are irritated or annoyed even if they don’t show it outwardly. Falling asleep in class on a regular basis may be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep, or even that you’re suffering from a sleep disorder.

Q: Can you catch up on sleep?
A: Short term sleep debt can be caught up on. That means if you have a bad night’s sleep, going to bed early the next day will help you make up for it. But long term sleep loss is gone forever. If you’re hoping to catch up on a week of sleep deprivation over the weekend, you’re out of luck.

Q: How can you make it through the day on little to no sleep?
A: Don’t hit the snooze button: it will not help. It may even make you feel groggier. Moderate caffeine, protein, breaks, and even a nap can help you make it through. Then, go to bed early if possible to make up for the sleep loss right away.

Starting a Healthy Sleep Routine

Creating a sleep routine can eliminate many sleep problems. With a comfortable environment and healthy sleep habits, you can lay the groundwork for a good night’s sleep. Can’t do it all? Even a few small changes can help you see improvement in your sleep. Use these tips to set up a healthy sleep routine:

the expert guide to sleep disorders (photo by Shutterstock/)

  • Create a sleep diary: Using a sleep diary, you can track your sleep, identifying habits and trends that may help or hinder your sleep.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Sugary snacks may perk you up for a while, but they’ll sabotage your sleep. Eating balanced, nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day can contribute to better sleep. Avoid going to bed with an empty or overly full stomach, and be careful about spicy or acidic foods before bed if you suffer from acid reflux.
  • Exercise regularly: Getting enough physical activity can help you sleep better. Time your workout at least three hours before bedtime to allow your body temperature to cool off and your energy to return to normal.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed: While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it can reduce the quality of sleep. One to two drinks will have a minimal effect, but more than that can rob you of deep restorative sleep — even when you’ve spent plenty of time in bed.
  • Be careful with nicotine and caffeine: Caffeine offers a quick way to stay alert, and it’s found in just about everything from coffee to soft drinks, even chocolate. But too much caffeine can cause insomnia. Keep your consumption to about three cups of coffee a day and stop drinking coffee at least a few hours before bed. Nicotine has similar effects, causing insomnia and sabotaging deep sleep. Cut back on your nicotine consumption before bed for better sleep.
  • Nap strategically: Napping can improve your mood and alertness, especially if you’ve had trouble sleeping the night before. But nap too long or too close to bedtime, and you could find yourself wide awake when you should be sleeping. Stick to short naps about 30 minutes long, avoiding naps late in the day.
  • Minimize sleep disruptions: Waking up to go to the bathroom, stress, even your bedroom environment can keep you awake at night. Limit how much you drink in the evening and wind down before bedtime. Make your bedroom comfortable for sleep, making it slightly cool while reducing light and noise.
  • Choose the right mattress: If you’re waking up with back pain or don’t feel like you’ve gotten enough sleep, you may need a different mattress. Replace your box spring and mattress every eight years for comfort and hygiene. When shopping for a new mattress, consider whether you prefer a firm or soft mattress and look for a mattress that fits your body.
  • Shut down electronics before bed: Staying connected at night can interfere with good sleep. Sending emails or checking texts at night can make you tense. The glow of electronic screens can reduce your sleep quality as well. Keep your phone and other devices out of bed, and unwind for about 30 minutes without technology before you go to sleep.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex: Teach your brain that you bed is for rest and sex only. Avoid texting, watching TV, or working.
  • Stick to a dedicated sleep schedule: If you stick to the same general schedule of waking and going to bed every morning and night, your body will find it easier to fall into the usual routine. One or two days off of your schedule won’t wreck your sleep patterns, but it’s best to stay with it as much as possible.

Buying a New Mattress or Supplementing the One You Have

Mattress choice plays a significant role in your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed and restored. However, a new mattress represents a significant investment for most college students — typically $800 or more. For this reason, supplementing an existing mattress may be more cost-effective than purchasing a new model.

On-Campus Living

College students who reside in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and other on-campus housing facilities are usually given a mattress as part of their living accommodations. These mattresses are often used, and in many cases it is impossible to determine the length of time it has been slept on. Even if the mattress is brand new, its quality may be in doubt. Students who receive mattresses can supplement their sleep surface using the following accessories:

  • Toppers: Toppers are extra layers of padding that rest on top of the mattress comfort layer. They make the sleep surface softer, and also add an extra layer of protection if the mattress is used.
  • Mattress protector: A mattress protector resembles a fitted sheet. They are designed to shield the mattress from stains and prevent damage associated with dirt and dust, making the mattress more hygienic in the process.
  • Pillows: When selecting the right pillow, be sure to consider ‘loft’, or thickness. Pillows that are too thick or too thin for the sleeper can cause neck and shoulder pain. If standard pillows don’t provide enough softness or support, consider memory foam or latex pillows that conform more closely to the head and neck.
  • Bedding: A high-quality sheet set — consisting of one fitted sheet and one flat sheet — typically costs no more than $40. A key quality in sheets is pocket depth; inadequate pocket depth often causes sheets to come unfitted, which can lead to nighttime discomfort and sleep disruption.

Off-Campus Living

Students who live off-campus, on the other hand, often have to acquire a mattress on their own. Here are a few mattress-related considerations for off-campus students:

  • Resale: Many students buy mattresses in the hope of selling the item once they are finished with school in order to recuperate some of the initial expenses. However, the resale value of a mattress is relatively low. Original mattress purchasers often qualify for sleep trials and free mattress returns, and are covered under the product warranty; those who buy the mattress from the original owner are not eligible for these perks, and this drives down the resale value. Additionally, many shoppers are wary of purchasing mattresses second-hand on sites like Craigslist and OfferUp due to the dubious quality and history of the product.
  • Mattress lifespan: The average mattress made today is designed for seven years of consistent use. This means that it could potentially perform long after you finish school. Rather than focusing on resale value, consider buying a mattress with a solid record of long-term performance.
  • Budget: Mattress price-points range from less than $100 to more than $4,000. It may be tempting for some students to err on the cheap side. However, spending a bit more can help ensure that the selected mattress will offer adequate support and comfort for a longer period of time.

Every sleeper has different comfort and support preferences, and they should choose a mattress based on their own individual criteria. Most mattresses sold today are categorized as one of the four mattress types:

  • Innerspring: Innerspring mattresses are usually constructed with foam-based comfort layers and support cores with steel coils. These mattresses are springy and tend to be somewhat firm compared to other mattress types. The average innerspring costs between $800 and $1,100.
  • Memory foam: Memory foam is a polyurethane-based material engineered to conform closely to sleeper’s figures and target pressure points throughout the body. Memory foam mattresses are relatively soft, though a wide range of firmness ratings are available to accommodate different sleepers. The price range for an average memory foam bed is $1,000 to $1,500.
  • Latex: Latex is a natural substance produced from the sap of rubber trees; as a mattress material, it usually rates as Soft to Medium on firmness scales and offers some body-conforming and pressure relief. Latex mattresses are relatively expensive; the average model costs between $1,500 and $2,000.
  • Hybrid: The term ‘hybrid’ refers to mattresses with at least two inches of memory foam and/or latex in the comfort system and a pocketed (fabric-encased) coil support core. Many sleepers consider hybrids a good balance of softness and firmness with some conforming and pressure relief. The average hybrid mattress runs between $1,600 and $2,000.

Online Sleep Resources

Want to learn more about sleep for college students? These online resources can help.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep Facts and Studies

Stress Relief Resources

Mental Health Resources

Where to go for Help