Better Sleep in College: Is It Really Possible?

Medical student preparing for university exams at night

Deadlines, stacks on stacks of paperwork, and balancing your interests  – welcome to college life! For some of us, it can be hard to stay in tiptop shape and get enough zzz’s to conquer the next day. Because of this, you may ask certain questions about how to get better sleep in college, or how academic performance is affected by a lack of sleep. Today, we will be talking about these important points.

Whether you’re living life on-campus, or choose to enroll in an online degree program, having enough sleep to power on may seem like a luxury. But is it really possible?

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Sleep 101: Stats and Some Hard Facts

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35% of all adults in the US aren’t getting enough sleep, roughly translating to more than 80 million adults getting less than seven hours of shut-eye every night.

With college students, this problem is more magnified – with all the pressures of academics, extracurriculars, and coping with personal and social stressors, young adults in different universities and colleges tend to suffer from poor sleep hygiene and inadequate sleep hours.

It is reported that 70-96% of college students get less than 8 hours of sleep, especially during weekdays. The respondent from the said study claims that sleep is a luxury for a lot of people including herself. This would substantiate previous findings that only 11% of all college students get enough sleep with good quality consistently, with young adults sacrificing hours of rest every day to sneak in more time for academic and personal requirements.

Additionally, in a 2017 German paper published by the Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment Journal, it was reported that “up to 60 percent of all college students suffer from a poor sleep quality”, with 7.7% of respondents meeting every single criterion of an insomnia disorder. This means that while they may be getting the recommended amount of hours of sleep per se, it’s possible that it’s not the best kind.

Sleep Deprivation…even among Online Learners?

No college student is exempt from getting sleep deprived…not even online learners.

Photo of male college student sleeping above laptop after doing school work with books

According to a 2020 article published by the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, one of the greatest cons of virtual classes is the effect that has when it comes to the health of students, particularly sleep habits.

Especially with the COVID-19 situation and the overall boom of distance learning modalities, many students are pushed to spend more hours online and wake up at odd times because of factors such as timezone differences, and altered sleep-wake cycles. If you’re already enrolled in online classes because of the flexibility it provides, you may also be prone to various sleep problems.

Additionally, with most of us spending extended screentime of more than 8-10 hours a day, we are exposing ourselves to blue light, which could also play a part in disrupting sleep, and throwing our body’s sleep-wake cycle out of whack. This blue light is actually a healthy part of our lives, which is both emitted by the sun and our gadgets, including our laptops, smartphones, and PCs. But at night, this wavelength may disrupt our natural sleep cycles and make our brains think that it’s daytime, making it harder for us to doze-off.

Sleep Quantity vs. Sleep Quality

Cute pug dog sleep rest with funny mask in the bed, wrap with blanket and tongue sticking out in the lazy time

As mentioned, there are certain factors that may come into play when we’re trying to describe the kind of sleep you’re getting. Here are a few key terms that you can think about when talking about sleep:

Sleep quantity refers to the number of sleep hours that your body needs to feel ultimately recharged. For most adults, getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night is recommended, although that may vary depending on your personal requirements. Some adults could function with only 4 to 6 hours of sleep, while others may need a bit more than the standard requirement to feel well-rested.

Sleep quality, on the other hand, refers to the kind of rest you get every night. If you sleep well every night, without any problems falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, you can say that you have a good sleep quality regardless of the actual number of hours you spend in bed.

To put it simply, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) explains that there are key indicators for good sleep quality, namely:

  • While in bed, actually sleeping for most of the time (at least 85 percent of the total hours spent lying down)
  • Being able to doze-off in a short period of time (less than 30 minutes)
  • Waking up only once (or none at all) within the time you’re sleeping
  • Waking time of fewer than 20 minutes if you wake up within the time you fall asleep

On the contrary, the NSF also provides clues that may signify the need for improved sleep quality, including:

  • Taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep after laying down
  • Having a predetermined insomnia diagnosis
  • Waking up more than once within your sleep cycle
  • Staying awake for more than 20 minutes the moment you wake up in the middle of the night
  • Spending less than 85 percent of the hours you spend in bed actually sleeping

To put it simply, you must have the so-called perfect formula right, meaning the adequate amount of sleep plus the perfect quality to get more out of your rest periods.

How Lack of Sleep Affects Academic Performance

stressed student pose his head on chalkboard

With all these responsibilities keeping students awake, it isn’t any wonder why college students are generally known to be sleep-deprived. And while we are on the subject of inadequate sleep and poor sleep habits, we can focus a bit more on the effects of sleep deprivation on academic performance (and other areas) of college students.

The direct effects of sleep deprivation, which are daytime sleepiness and irregular sleep schedules, are reported to negatively impact a student’s learning, memory, and over-all performance in school, although this mechanism has yet to be completely understood. This would mean lower GPAs, lesser retention rates and overall forgetfulness, which may hinder optimal learning outcomes.

Sleep deprivation may be a direct result of poor sleep hygiene or negative attitudes and behaviors related to sleep. Examples may be spending too much time on the phone past one’s bedtime or drinking coffee too late in the day.

Additionally, expert advice shows that having poor sleep quality can lead to problems such as poor alertness and physical coordination, which could greatly affect your sharp thinking and cost you your safety (for example, driving while drowsy has led to car accidents in the past years). This could also lead to mental health issues, such as depression and suicidal ideations, which may affect academics and school attendance.

In 2018, a paper published by Walden University focused heavily on the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on online university students, with overall results showing feelings of “tiredness, sluggish thinking, and cranky responses” as a common denominator. The respondents were also dealing with different aspects of their lives, including family, jobs, and their social lives, and these physical and mental responses could have factored negatively into these parts.

How Enough Sleep Benefits College Students

Young female student preparing for college school exams

With good sleep hygiene, your academic performance will surely turn out for the better (and there are various studies to back this up).

According to an article by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, there are studies that have shown the importance of adequate sleep in feeling awake and alert, which meant better health outcomes and “working at peak performance”.

A 2015 article by the Standford University News Center also suggests the role of sleep in regulating one’s emotions and mental faculties, which may prevent possible onsets for students who may already be living with mood and affect disorders like “anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder”. If you feel your best after a good night’s sleep, chances are you’re motivated to listen more and use your capacities to their fullest.

With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across nations, it’s important to put in more hours of sleep as possible. Turkish news authorityAnadolu Agency stresses the importance of getting enough shut-eye every night, as an expert suggests that “healthy sleep is key for the proper functioning of (the) immune system”. Moreover, it is reported that staying up for just a single night may reduce “the number and activity of natural killer lymphocytes”, which are important in keeping harmful microorganisms at bay.

How to Get Better Sleep in College (Without Counting Sheep)!

To reach your full potential, there are no shortcuts (and it’s not about counting sheep). Of course, the same goes for getting better sleep every night – it may seem difficult, but it’s definitely doable. Here are some tips to get better sleep in college:

Work smarter, not harder.

work smart college

College students have the tendency to procrastinate and do things at the last minute, and in turn, sacrifice what little time they may have for sleep. It’s easier said than done, but when you master the art of time management, it could get you far ahead.

Productivity apps, such as the Pomodoro timer, allow you to divide your work into 25-30 minute chunks with 5-15 minute breaks in between. Additionally, it would take discipline to stick to your study schedule every day, allowing 2-3 hours a day for course work and other assignments. Practice notetaking and organizing all of your study materials before getting busy.

Good sleep hygiene is key.

sleep hygiene concept

It is important to foster consistent sleep habits (or sleep hygiene) in order to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep:

At least 30-45 minutes before hitting the sheets, try to wind down and create a pre-snooze routine to relax your mind. This can include meditation, journaling, drinking caffeine-free tea, reading a book, or completing a skincare routine.

You can try to set a target bedtime for the night and wake up at the same time every day in order to reset your body clock.

Additionally, set the mood – try to steer clear of all distractions, keep the room dim and quiet, and make sure to unplug all of your devices, including your laptop, TV, and smartphone, to reduce blue light exposure before going to bed.

Keep stimulants to a minimum.

coffee

If you value your cup o’ Joe so much, you must learn to keep it to a minimum and have it early in the day. Studies suggest that there’s a clear connection between daily caffeine intake, increased drowsiness in the AM, and reduced sleep quality. Additionally, energy drinks also have caffeine in them, which accounts for increased anxiety and faster heart rates. It could also cause urinary frequency because caffeine-containing drinks are natural diuretics. If you can, just skip it.

Keep the alcohol in check.

Contrary to popular belief, chugging some beer before bedtime doesn’t improve the quality of sleep you have. At best – because it’s a sedative – it may make you feel drowsy and more relaxed, but it won’t make you feel rested the next day. If you’re sleep deprived since then, it will make everything worse.

No sleepy-time snacks.

snacks

It can be tempting to make yourself a sandwich before going to bed, but it may cost you some hours of sleep. Try to sleep with an empty stomach, at least 2-3 hours prior to bedtime.

Track your sleep in a diary.

sleep diary

In order to track your progress, you can complete a sleep diary every night. This would allow you to monitor different responses and possible patterns that may affect sleep quantity and quality.

Get your body moving!

walk before sleep

When your body is able to effectively expedite its energy stores, it will help regulate your Circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle). If you can, you can try to take a quick walk outside before bedtime, as this would also get you relaxed.

Nap effectively, nap reasonably.

nap

When you’re a college student with a pile of course work and extracurricular activities, it may be tempting to nap longer than necessary, throwing-off your natural sleep-wake cycle and keeping you up at night. It’s important to nap at a reasonable amount of time every day, preferably doing cat-naps not longer than 30 minutes within the day.

Keep night-outs to a minimum.

night-out concept

When night-outs at coffee shops and/or clubbing with friends seem to take over your routine instead of getting enough sleep, it could cost you a lot. Learn how to say no, and keep these activities in moderation, especially when you’re currently dealing with a sleep disorder.

Seek help if you need it.

doctor

If you notice that you are suffering from difficulty falling/staying asleep (or staying awake in the morning), you may be suffering from one or more types of sleep disorders. Consider visiting a sleep disorder specialist when these symptoms ultimately disrupt your academic performance or cause physical, mental, and/or emotional problems.