- Up to 60% of college students suffer from poor quality sleep, and 7.7% of these students are diagnosed with an insomnia disorder.
- The CDC recommends adults aged 18 to 60 get at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but the lifestyle of a college student can make this challenging.
- Sleep deprivation can be caused by stress, lack of consistent schedule, nicotine and alcohol, illness, and sleep disorders. With 55% of college students using alcohol and 22% of students vaping nicotine, sleep deprivation might improve with lifestyle changes.
- A college student can improve their overall sleep quality by turning off their electronic devices, taking time to wind down, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol late at night, and staying away from sugar and carbohydrates a few hours before bedtime.
College students and healthy sleep habits are rarely lumped together. The reality is, life for a college student is a pressure-packed mix of classes, homework, exams, activities, and perhaps even adding working full or part-time. Then you add the distractions from the college environment, and all bets for sleep are off.
Sleep deprivation among college students is a reality. And while it may not be at the forefront of a college student’s task list, getting a quality night’s sleep leads to improved mental health and strength to deal with the challenges of college life head-on. Sleep is only one component for overall success, but it’s essential enough to make a difference when it becomes a focus for someone.
Up to 60% of college students suffer from poor quality sleep, and 7.7% of these students are diagnosed with an insomnia disorder. In turn, this has a ripple effect and impacts several systems in our bodies and even a student’s GPA. Fortunately, there are practical steps everyone, and particularly college students, can take daily, to improve the hours of quality sleep and close the gap between the recommendations and what they’re actually getting.
What Causes Sleep Deprivation on College Campuses?
“Common reasons for sleep deprivation amongst college students is related to their environment and lifestyle. Many are pulling all-nighters to finish homework or study for an exam, working increased part-time hours, trying to sleep amongst noise from a roommate or dorm/apartment neighbor. Plus, they are adapting to irregular daytime routines due to class schedules.” said Dr. Kent Smith, renowned sleep expert and president of the American Sleep & Breathing Academy.
While there are numerous causes for sleep deprivation, several are particularly relevant to college students, including:
Increased stress has long been associated with a decrease in hours of sleep and overall quality of rest. The lack of sleep causes fatigue and irritability, especially among older teenagers and young adults. It also leads to feeling overwhelmed and unable to concentrate, which can be especially damaging to a college student. To put this impact in perspective, a study from the American Psychological Association shows that lower stress levels can help adults get roughly an extra hour of sleep (7.1 hours vs. 6.2 hours for highly stressed adults).
Change in Schedule
Keeping an irregular schedule or not getting enough sleep consistently disrupts the sleep cycle. College students are especially prone to this, with unpredictable schedules, late-night schedules, and irregular routines. An inconsistent sleep schedule can also have dire impacts on a college student’s health. For every hour of sleep variability students see in their regular sleep hours, the risks for obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol (amongst other health problems) can increase by as much as 27%.
Nicotine and Alcohol
80% of college students drink. College students who report trouble sleeping tend to drink alcohol more often and at higher rates. Here’s the thing about alcohol, it might help you fall asleep, but it doesn’t let you stay asleep. Alcohol suppresses the excitatory cells in the brain, helping you fall asleep. But as your body metabolizes the alcohol, you wake up.
While smoking has decreased to about 7.9% of college students, vaping is rising, with 22% of college students reporting the behavior. Regardless of how you intake it, nicotine is a stimulant, meaning you’ll have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep when it’s in your body. The thing about cigarettes and vapes is that sleep deprivation actually increases the use of these products. During a time when sleep is already hard to find — adding alcohol and nicotine into the picture only makes it harder to get the sleep you need.
Sleep disorders may be more common among college students than previously thought, with roughly 27% of college students at risk for different conditions. This is not a complete surprise given the number of developments students experience in the transition to college life. Students who reported traits of a sleep disorder were also at a higher risk for a low (less than 2.0) GPA.
With the many new responsibilities of college life come various work obligations, both in terms of class assignments and often professional employment to assist in paying for student loans. As of 2017, 27% of full-time students and 71% of part-time students worked more than 20 hours per week, in addition to spending 2-3 hours each week on homework for each hour of class they took. Overwork can lead to sleep becoming a lower priority and to the accrual of sleep debt over time.
So How Much Sleep Do College Students Need?
Besides the fact our parents always told us we need to get a good night’s sleep, it turns out there are multiple benefits to the recommended seven to nine hours of quality sleep. Instead of thinking of sleep as an “I’ll get to it later” type of thing, sleep can be a tool for success in the college world. Students need all the help they can get when it comes to better productivity, additional energy for activities, and as much mental clarity as possible—sleep aids in all of these.
Sleep is also critical for brain development during the late teens and early adult years. “Sleep is a foundational block for health for all of us. For college-aged people, it is crucial, as their brains are still developing. For males, the brain is 100% developed around age 25; for females, it happens around age 21 to 22. Similar to how we all know infants require copious amounts of sleep for proper brain development, so do those in the launching years.” according to Dr.Nancy Irwin, a licensed clinical psychologist and Sleep Hygiene/Dream Analyst.
In college, getting a good night’s sleep is about more than just good grades. Sure, that’s how you’re going to get out of college. But the sleep habits you put in place now will help you manage your performance and physical and mental health during college and beyond.
Your mental health and how you sleep are intricately linked. Sleep deprivation is commonly found in people who live with anxiety, ADHA, depression and bipolar disorder. Often, sleep deprivation is only thought of as a symptom of mental health disorders. But it’s a two-way link.
While sleep deprivation can be a symptom, research suggests that it can increase the risk for and contribute to the development of these disorders. A study of 979 young adults found that people with insomnia were four times more likely to develop depression three years later.
A recent study from the Sleep Research Society investigated the relationship between insufficient sleep and mental health symptoms. They found that every night a person didn’t get enough sleep, mental health symptoms increased by 20%. There was a:
- 21% increased risk for a depressed mood
- 24% hopelessness, 25% anxiety
- 28% for suicidal ideations
- 28% functional problems
- 25% self-harm desire
- 24% anger
A global sleep study conducted by Philips found 75% of adults are less productive after a poor night’s sleep. Getting the recommended amount of quality sleep leads to better productivity, which gives you the energy to tackle the numerous tasks of a college student. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, compared to those who regularly got seven to eight hours of sleep, adults who reported getting five to six hours of sleep saw 19% more productivity loss. Those who slept for less than 5 hours saw 29% more productivity loss.
Healthier sleep has been shown to improve accuracy by helping you think more clearly and stay focused. This leads to better performance on tests and schoolwork. Sleep deprivation is also known to directly impact your working memory, attention span, and even testing accuracy. Sleep deprivation can also affect students who commute. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 16 to 24-year-olds are 80% more likely to be in a drowsy driving accident.
Turns out, not getting enough sleep can make you sick. Sleep deprivation impacts how your immune system functions and how you heal. Students who sleep less than six hours a night are at a higher risk of infection.
T cells are an essential part of your immune system. Sleep helps them do their job –– more specifically, recognize infected cells and kill them. When you don’t get enough sleep, stress hormones get in the way of t cell function. A good night’s sleep, on the other hand, will boost their effectiveness. So if you find that you’re feeling run down or you just can’t beat that cold, your best bet is to get some sleep!
What Influences College Student Sleep?
While seven hours may be the recommended minimum number of hours for sleep by the CDC, the typical college student schedule doesn’t always support this. As it turns out, other personal factors, such as their major, program, environment and work schedule, may all play a role in the number of hours of sleep a student actually gets.
Sleep By College Environment
A significant impact on the hours and quality of sleep for college students is the actual college environment. There are numerous environmental factors affecting rest, such as noise and distractions, being surrounded by people, like roommates or study partners, air quality, and commute.
Air Quality on Campus (1)
In addition to air pollution’s potential to up your risk for sleep apnea, poor air quality and total hours slept can also be interconnected. While this may be relatively apparent based on a college’s proximity to a big city or chemical plant, the air quality present inside student rooms due to building age or ventilation can also be a factor. According to a study conducted at the Technical University of Denmark, students that slept in rooms with additional ventilation to decrease carbon dioxide levels saw improved sleep quality and were better able to concentrate the following day.
A commute is another contributing factor to the quality of sleep a college student can get. The reality is, if you don’t want to live in a dorm, the closer to the campus you live in, the more expensive your rent will be. While living further away from campus will save you money, it also means a longer commute. Around 83% of students choose to commute to campus. The longer your commute, the earlier you have to get up, the less sleep you get.
This lack of sleep contributes to another problem entirely –– drowsy driving. Driving while sleep-deprived means you’ll have slower reaction times, decision making and alertness. 16 to 24-year olds are 80% more likely to get into an accident because they are tired.
Living Accommodations (3)
For many young adults, living on a college campus is their first experience with a higher level of independence. With that independence comes additional responsibilities and incentives to problem solve for self-care, particularly when it comes to sleep. About 90% of university students have roommates, and 41% wake up at night due to the noise of others. If flatmates can’t come to a reasonable agreement about sleep boundaries, sleep interruptions can persist and degrade student health.
Eating Habits (4)
Another potential environmental roadblock is a student’s healthy eating habits –– or lack thereof. College students have plenty of opportunities for temptation, from pizza at late-night study sessions to coffee and donuts for afternoon pick-me-ups.
But as it turns out, there is now evidence that college students who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 25% were more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances. One study shows that 51% of college students with a higher BMI suffered from lower-quality sleep. Not only does maintaining healthy eating habits help you avoid the dreaded Freshman 15, but it can also prevent sleep disruption.
Instead of settling for chips and candy when you’re walking across campus or when you’re bunkered down in the library, opt for foods that won’t keep you up at night. You’ll want to stay away from sweets, spicy foods and pizza.
Food to eat before bed:
- Bananas and almond butter –– bananas contain serotonin, which is partially converted to melatonin. Almonds also contain melatonin.
- Cherries –– Cherries (without ice cream under it) have anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Trail mix –– If your trail mix has the right ingredients, you can induce sleep with the melatonin found in the nuts and dried cranberries.
Sleep For Undergraduate vs. Graduate Programs (5)
College is college, but undergraduate programs and graduate programs are entirely different. There are different expectations and requirements the student must adapt to. Undergraduate students average 6 to 6.9 hours of sleep each night and grad students average around 6.4 hours per night.
Students of all ages grapple with stress. However, the experience is different for undergraduate and graduate students. 64% of graduate students indicated they get good, quality sleep, while only 11% of American undergraduates sleep well.
So why are graduate students more rested than undergrads? Perhaps it’s because they’ve already adapted to college life. Or because they have long-term assignments instead of hundreds of short ones. Research suggests that it’s a combination –– graduate students have better sleep hygiene than undergraduate students. It shouldn’t surprise that graduate students are better able to balance their time and responsibilities. They did get into graduate school, after all.
Sleep By Economic Background (6)
If you need to work off-campus for extra money during college, it can definitely impact the number of hours of sleep you’re able to get each night. Studies show that when full-time students work 20 or more hours per week, they’ll experience diminished sleep quality.
“If a college student must work to be able to go to school, he or she has more to fit in their day and less time for classes and homework. This type of schedule leads to stress and pressure, which makes sleep more difficult,” explains Kathryn Ely, ALC, NCC, a National Certified Counselor with Empower Counseling and Coaching.
This is where receiving scholarship money goes beyond a financial benefit and provides a physical one if it allows you to work less and spend more time focusing on your classes and overall health.
Sleep By Amount Of Exercise (7)
Exercise is known to offer a wealth of benefits, one of which is an improved quality and quantity of sleep and improved mood. In a study of adults that self-reported sleep time of fewer than 6.5 hours per night, respondents saw an average improvement of 75 minutes of extra sleep per night after engaging in moderate-intensity workouts four times a week for six weeks.
However, exercising too late in the day can have the opposite effect. While college students may feel tempted to squeeze in evening exercise to fit their unpredictable schedules, it can keep you awake at night if you exercise too late. Studies show that if you exercise within an hour of your bedtime, it negatively impacts sleep quality and duration.
How Can College Students Get Better Sleep
A good night’s sleep for a college student may not be as hard to come by as you might assume. While irregular hours, shared spaces and academic pressure may be a common occurrence, being thoughtful about sleep – instead of looking at it as an afterthought- is possible. There are several tactics to use to improve the quality of sleep.
- Turn off the electronics: Studies continue to point to lower quality sleep and an overall negative impact on general health by using electronics shortly before bedtime. Turn off the electronics earlier and stay away from social media when you’re trying to wind down. Limiting the blue light from electronics helps with melatonin production, which is the hormone that aids in sleep. By not using electronics within an hour to an hour and a half before bedtime, you keep your circadian rhythm in top shape and get a better night’s sleep.
- Be strategic with naps: “Long naps during the day can disrupt sleep time and quality at night. It can also cause you to go to bed later because you don’t feel sleepy. If you must take naps, take short naps of a maximum of 45 minutes and don’t take a nap after 3 pm.” according to Dr. Brian Wind, Chief Clinical Officer of the Journey Pure clinic, which treats sleep disorders. While naps may feel necessary, try to limit the length of time and take them earlier in the day.
- Maintain a regular bedtime: While a steady routine and a college student do not often go hand-in-hand, maintaining a regular bedtime will lead to better quality sleep overall.
- Take time to decompress: A calming routine starting around 30 minutes before going to bed can lead to greater sleep quality. Listening to music or reading are activities that enable you to wind down. Listening to calming music has been shown to reduce stressful thoughts, which leads to better rest.
- Watch what you eat before bedtime: Large meals should be avoided late at night; however, you should also “avoid ingesting refined sugars or carbs (which break down into sugar) within an hour or two before sleep. Otherwise, the insulin spikes and creates a sleep disorder,” Dr. Nancy Irwin explains.
- Stay away from caffeine and nicotine, especially later in the day: Both caffeinated drinks and nicotine disrupt sleep patterns and are linked to poor sleep quality.
Here’s The Punchline
The majority of college students today are sleep-deprived. This is a real issue for various reasons, including stress, irregular schedule, alcohol and nicotine use, and even sleep disorders. The consequences of sleep deprivation range from weight gain to depression and weakened immunity. Fortunately, it can be avoided — even by college students — by following practical steps for a better night’s sleep. Steps such as turning off electronics earlier in the night, avoiding caffeine and nicotine later in the day, sticking to as regular of a schedule as possible and taking time to wind down all go a long way towards a better night’s sleep.