Sleep: Snooze or Lose
On this page:
- Night owl nation
- Why do we need sleep?
- How much sleep do I need?
- Consequences of sleep loss
- Sleep loss Is linked to depression
- How to improve your sleep
- How to minimize the effect of sleep loss on grades
- Do I have a sleep disorder?
- When should I get help?
- For help and more information
Night owl nation: College students, like Americans overall, are sleeping less. The college years are notoriously sleep-deprived due to all-night cram sessions, parties, TV, the net and a general overload of activity. On average, college students today are going to bed 1-2 hours later and sleeping 1-1.6 hours less than they did a generation ago. As a result, sleep complaints and depression have increased dramatically among college students.
Why do we need sleep? Sleep maintains your circadian rhythms (the light-dependent 24-hour cycle that regulates body and mind), restores your body functions and strengthens your immune system. It also helps you remember what you learn and prepares you for your next challenge.
How much sleep do I need? Many adults function best with around 8 hours of sleep, but each person has unique needs. Sleep requirements depend on the environment, stress, health, age and many other variables.
But if you're like most college students, you're not getting enough sleep. On average, college students get only 6-6.9 hours of sleep per night.
Consequences of sleep loss: For many students, it's a sign of achievement to function on minimal sleep, but lack of sleep carries risks. Sleep less than 6.5 (or more than 9) hours per night is associated with 1.7 times greater risk of disease and death. Lack of sleep causes:
- Decreased academic performance
- Automobile accidents (fatigue is the leading cause)
- Illness such as colds and flu
- Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety
Sleep loss Is linked to depression: In college students, depression is two times more common than in the general population, affecting approximately 20% of students. Researchers believe that lack of sleep contributes to this high rate of depression in college students. Attending college increases the incidence of both sleep problems and depression.
Sleep disturbance for more than two weeks is a risk factor for developing depression. More than 80% of individuals who suffer from depression also have sleep abnormalities, and if sleep problems persist after depression has subsided, the risk of relapse and even suicide increases.
See Depression for more on that topic.
- Maintain regular rise and bed times every night, including weekends.
- Take a hot bath (for about 15 minutes) 1.5 hours before bedtime.
- Turn down the thermostat and avoid electric blankets at bedtime.
- Dim the lights at night. Bright lights suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain's pineal gland that helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Get bright light early in the morning and avoid bright light in the late afternoon and evening so you can get to sleep at night. Use low-wattage incandescent light. Also, use very dark curtains or wear a mask for sleep.
- Restrict caffeine (not just coffee - see Caffeine for other sources) to 1-2 cups before 10 AM and avoid nicotine (smoking tobacco) in the evening. These stimulants make it more difficult to relax into sleep.
- Drink warm milk a half-hour before bedtime.
- Don't eat food within 2 hours of bedtime. Large meals take time to digest and make sleep difficult; likewise, liquids may interrupt sleep by causing a trip to the bathroom.
- Exercise regularly to tire your body, but be aware that exercising within 2 hours of bedtime may actually leave your body too energized to relax!
- Avoid napping. Approximately 30-50% of college students nap, but the effect is that nappers sleep less than non-nappers. If you do nap, nap early in the day and keep it short.
- Limit use of alcohol (or don't drink) because it disrupts sleep. Also be aware that alcohol can magnify the effects of sleep-deprivation. And did you know that Alcohol Disrupts Women's Sleep more than men's?
- Avoid routine use of sleeping pills or other sleep aids, which reduce sleep quality. Also, be aware that products classified as dietary supplements (e.g. melatonin) are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, so the strength and quality of such products is not guaranteed.
- Avoid jet lag - see Jet Lag to learn more.
- Create your own sleep rituals - listen to calming music, brush your teeth, read a book, write in a journal - to signal your body and mind that it is time to sleep.
- If you can't sleep, get up - don't lay in bed and worry. Do something relaxing until you feel sleepy, then go back to bed.
Make time for adequate rest before essay exams. While your memory skills may be relatively unimpaired (e.g., for a multiple choice test), losing a night's sleep can decrease processing and analyzing skills.
If you have to pull an all-nighter, go to bed early the next night rather than napping during the day. While short daytime naps can be refreshing, longer naps can upset your internal clock. If you do nap during the day, limit it to less than 30 minutes.
For more on handling tests, see Test Anxiety.
Do I have a sleep disorder? Sleep disorders can affect the rest you get. If you experience any of the following, seek medical advice (see For Help and More Information).
Insomnia is the inability to fall or stay asleep. While this is a normal, relatively harmless short-term reaction to stress or excitement, chronic insomnia (lasting more than three weeks) may suggest an underlying health problem and should be checked out.
Narcolepsy is an inherited condition of excessive sleepiness that causes temporary loss of muscle control and/or uncontrollable "sleep attacks." There is no cure for narcolepsy, although it can be controlled through drug treatment.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which the soft tissue of the upper airway repeatedly collapses during sleep and cuts off breathing for a short time, then the airway opens abruptly and noisily. The constant interruptions of sleep cause excessive sleepiness during the day, but sleep apnea may go unnoticed unless someone sleeps in the same room and hears the interruptions. This condition occurs most frequently in middle-aged men. Obesity increases the risk of this disorder.
Restless legs is a condition in which the legs jerk uncontrollably during sleep, disturbing sleep and causing daytime sleepiness.
When should I get help? Consider professional assistance (see For Help and More Information) if you:
- Have trouble getting to sleep or wake up frequently during the night for a period of several weeks.
- Fall asleep at inappropriate times even after a night of adequate sleep.
- Have sudden attacks of uncontrollable sleep or muscle weakness.
- Have nightmares or night terrors (the experience of awakening in a terrified state without recollection of a dream) that interrupt your sleep.
- Have been told by someone that you stop breathing during sleep (especially if you have morning headaches or fall asleep easily during the day).
- Schedule an Appointment
- UHS offers medical advice by phone 24/7. This may save a trip to UHS, the ER or an urgent care facility. See Medical Advice by Phone.
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
3100 Michigan Union
Free, confidential services for UM students including:
- Short-term therapy for individuals or couples
- Workshops for changing patterns of behavior
- Assessment of substance abuse patterns (ASAP)
- Sexual assault counseling
- Referrals for additional help
UM Health System Sleep Disorders Center
Diagnoses and treats sleep disorders
(Note: Services are not covered by students' health service fee; students are responsible for payment of any fees incurred.)
National Sleep Foundation offers a sleep diary and suggests ways to talk to your doctor about sleep.