Why Sleep Is Important for Students (and How Much You Need)

Our bodies are built to function off of sleep, but many people dangerously push the limits of their sleep schedules. With classes, extracurriculars, social lives, and other responsibilities, college students in particular often deprioritize sleep

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Trying to get enough sleep in college sounds like a lose-lose scenario, but it doesn’t have to be. By knowing how and why sleep is important for students, you will be able to optimize your sleep schedule to ensure you’re awake for the entirety of your morning classes. 

In this article, we will look at:

Why Is Sleep Important for College Students?

Why is sleep important for college students? Sleep is required for our brains to function, develop, and process information properly. College is all about processing new information, so getting enough sleep is quite essential to the college experience.

Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done. It’s difficult to squeeze up to 9 hours per day for sleep, especially if you have trouble falling or staying asleep. Many college students also have to work part-time jobs on the side to get by. 

Even if a student does manage to carve out enough hours for sleep, it’s often at the expense of hobbies and other fun activities. Denying ourselves fun can lead to poor mental health and more sleeping problems. 

How Much Sleep Do College Students Need?

The CDC recommends adults between the ages of 18 and 60 aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Younger adults may find themselves needing more. The recommendation for teens between 13 and 18 is 8-10 hours per sleep. 

Considering the brain and other parts of the body don’t stop developing until 25, it’d be reasonable for an individual to need more sleep at the age of 20 than at 27. Suffice to say, the amount of sleep an adult needs varies from person to person, especially for college students.

How Much Sleep Do College Students Get?

According to a study performed by the University of Georgia, the average college student gets between 6 and 6.9 hours of sleep per night. Most other college student sleep statistics resulted in similar numbers. Considering 18-year-olds still often need up to 10 hours of sleep per night, these are not good results. 

The reasons for college students not getting enough sleep often include homework, social activities, jobs, studying, stress, underlying health conditions, and extracurriculars. Whatever the reason, college students need to bring their sleep schedule up to at least 7 hours of sleep per night to stay healthy.

Getting a proper night’s sleep is essential for brain growth and development. Being tired leads to slower reaction times and difficulty when remembering information. Considering the purpose of college is to learn, making sure you get enough sleep should be a high priority for all students.

Sleep Disorders

Sleeping problems aren’t always classifiable, but many problems people have falling or staying asleep fall under one of four sleep disorders.

Insomnia

Insomnia is one of the most common sleeping disorders and can show in many forms. Insomnia is the inability to fall or stay asleep.

Some people encounter sleep insomnia when first trying to stay awake at night. Others are woken up in the middle of the night, often between REMs, and are unable to fall back asleep. Others wake up hours before they’re supposed to, and feel fully awake but also incredibly tired.

Insomnia often leads to “excessive daytime sleepiness,” which can be detrimental to any college student. Insomnia is often treated with medication or hypnosis.

Sleep Apnea

Most often identifiable by snoring, sleep apnea causes interruptions to sleep. People who don’t snore may also be at risk of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is when a sleeping person is woken up by breathing problems or a self-made noise. Some people wake up and stay up, whereas others can fall back asleep. People who fall back asleep from their sleep apnea often don’t even realize they’re struggling with this sleep disorder, making it even more dangerous.

If sleep apnea is left untreated, it can cause serious health problems. Regularly waking up hurts our sleep schedule and our REM cycle, meaning a person with sleep apnea will probably need more than 7-8 hours to get by. When combined with other conditions, particularly cardiovascular or breathing conditions, untreated sleep apnea can be fatal.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is characterized by an abnormal urge to sleep during the day. Narcolepsy is possible even for those who regularly get 8+ hours of sleep each night. This disorder can result in “sleep attacks” and unconsciousness.

Restless Leg Syndrome 

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) consists of a creeping feeling in the leg that causes the legs to move. For some people, kicking or shaking the leg is sufficient enough to satisfy the syndrome, whereas those with severe RLS need to physically move around to shake the feeling.

RLS is considered a rather serious sleeping disorder, as having to get up and move is detrimental to our sleep and REM cycles. 

Underlying Sleep Conditions

Oftentimes, insomnia and other sleeping disorders are the results of other underlying conditions. In theory, any condition that causes pain can create sleeping disorders, including permanent diseases like diabetes or temporary ailments like a healing bone fracture.

If you experience recurrent problems sleeping but aren’t sure why it’s always a good idea to bring it up to your doctor. While there’s no guarantee that your trouble sleeping is coming from a different underlying condition, checking with a doctor may help point you in the right direction or make you aware of an even more severe condition.

Health conditions that can cause sleeping problems include:

  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Menopause
  • Menstruation
  • Obesity
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stress
  • Thyroid disease

Consequences of Losing Sleep 

Losing sleep is never a good idea. While pulling an “all-nighter” probably won’t kill you, not getting enough sleep or sticking to your sleep schedule has short-term and long-term consequences that no college student wants to deal with.

Short-Term Consequences

Short-term consequences of not getting enough sleep may include:

  • Lack of alertness
  • Slower reaction time
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Short-term memory impairment
  • Erratic emotions
  • Lack of motivation

According to a study by Oxford University, drivers are significantly more likely to cause an accident if they’ve received less than 7 hours of sleep in the last 24 hours. Sleep-deprived drivers are responsible for 16% of fatal car crashes. 

The short-term consequences of losing sleep may be easy to shrug off, but not getting enough sleep is dangerous. Be aware of how much sleep you’re getting and watch for the above warning signs. If you are noticeably sleep-deprived, avoid operating a motor vehicle or handling dangerous equipment.

Long-Term Consequences

Not getting enough sleep regularly can have serious long-term impacts on the quality of your life. Long-term consequences of not getting enough sleep may include:

  • Depression
  • Impaired judgment
  • Obesity
  • Long-term memory impairment
  • Anxiety
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Impaired immune system
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Death

According to multiple studies reported by Harvard University, people who regularly sleep less than 5 hours per night have a 15% higher risk of death from all causes. Getting anything less than 7 hours of sleep per night is unhealthy and incredibly dangerous if you make a habit of it.

Making the Most of Your Sleep Schedule

With such busy schedules, many college students struggle to carve out 8-hour gaps in their schedules to sleep. Other college students who have over 10 hours carved out per day may also struggle to get enough sleep. 

Learning to make the most of however many sleeping hours you have available is essential to keeping your body healthy and your mind open. Now that we know why sleep is important for students, here are some of the best strategies to maximize your sleep schedule.

Consider Your Diet

Having a healthy diet has a positive impact on your sleeping schedule, but not all college students are in a position to change their diets. Even if you can’t change what foods and liquids you consume, it’s important to consider when you consume them.

Don’t drink anything with caffeine at least a few hours before you plan to sleep. Avoid eating too much sugar before falling asleep. Don’t try to sleep immediately after eating a large meal.

Eating at regular intervals throughout the day helps you maintain your energy. Even if you didn’t get your full 8 hours, eating three full meals at the right times will help your body perform as if you did get enough sleep. 

Avoid Intoxicants

It’s no secret that many college students use alcohol or other intoxicating substances. While the usage of intoxicants is its own matter, it’s important to consider that any substance that impairs the mind will harm your sleep schedule. 

If an adult consumes an intoxicating substance like alcohol or cannabis, they won’t be able to hit their REM cycle until after the substance has worn off. A beer before bed does more to one’s sleep schedule than they may consider.

Stay Off Your Phone

This one is easier said than done. Our phones’ lights keep our brains awake way longer than they should. Most phones include settings to turn off the “blue light” and generally make the screen darker at night, but these aren’t enough. 

Make sure when it’s time to go to sleep, your phone is not in front of your face. Both you and your phone should be using this time to recharge. Every time your eyes adjust to your phone, you have to begin the process again.

Falling Asleep Techniques

For many college students, the struggle lies in actually falling asleep. Below are some of the best strategies for keeping those eyes shut.

Listen to Relaxing Music

Whether it’s an instrumental album or your favorite songs from a gentle artist, finding the right music is a great way to turn your mind off at night. Many college students avoid music with lyrics, as these tend to be more distracting.

Meditation

You don’t need to be spiritual to meditate. Some people use meditation to focus on a single thought, whereas others use meditation to entirely shut their minds off. Meditation is different for everyone and can be an effective tool for falling asleep.

Related Reading: Sleep Meditation: The 12 Best Guided Meditations for Sleep (Apps and Free Videos)

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is not for everyone, but it can be an efficient way to fall asleep. There are countless sleep hypnosis videos available on YouTube for free. These videos talk you to sleep over light background noise, and many of them can be hours long. When effective, hypnosis has been known to help people fall asleep for years after use.

Sleep Alternatives: What Works and What Doesn’t

Simply put, there are no true alternatives to sleep. Our bodies require sleep to survive and denying ourselves sleep is foolhardy. This being said, there are times college students particularly aren’t able to get sleep but need energy anyways.

Whether it was to cram for a test or to binge a new Netflix series, college students have come up with a variety of alternatives for sleep. Some are efficient, while others are potentially dangerous.

Energy Drinks

Energy drinks are one of the most common supplements for low energy among college students. No energy drink is “healthy,” but there are some energy drinks more effective and healthier than others. Be aware of what you drink before putting it in your body.

Energy drinks are not for everyone. Watch how your body reacts if you do use one and try not to drink an entire can in one sitting. We recommend not making a habit of using energy drinks. Most energy drinks are incredibly high in sugar and contain calories, carbs, caffeine, and unhealthy chemicals.

Coffee

Coffee is a very common energy supplement among college students. Like energy drinks, coffee should be used sparingly to avoid addiction/dependency or other long-term effects. 

Coffee is generally considered a healthier energy supplement than energy drinks. It’s worth noting the coffee industry is actively progressing toward healthier alternatives.

Listen to Upbeat Music

Music doesn’t give our bodies energy like sleep or a cup of coffee would, but many college students have utilized earbuds and an upbeat album to keep them awake. Music has psychological effects on our minds we still don’t fully understand. 

Playing energetic or even overwhelming music is a clever strategy that almost any student can take advantage of safely.

Key Takeaways

College is chaos. There’s no sugar coating this fact. As nice as it would be to fall asleep for 10 hours per day, a perfect sleep schedule is not possible for everyone. Being aware of why sleep is important for students and knowing strategies to maximize your sleep schedule will help you make the most of your college experience.

If you’ve tried these strategies and you still can’t fall asleep, visit your doctor. If you don’t have enough space in your schedule, consider revising your schedule. If an extracurricular activity, side job, or other activity is impacting your life so much that you cannot get the required 7 hours of sleep per night, something needs to change.

Maximizing your sleep may require sacrifices, but there’s nothing more important than your physical and mental health. Sleep is important for everyone, but especially for college students.

Nate Devore
Nate Devore
For over 15 years Nate has been obsessed with solving his own personal and difficult health challenges related to sleep, energy, and fatigue. As one of our sleep experts at sleeping.com, Nate is passionate about helping you get the best night’s sleep possible.

Medical Disclaimer: The content on this page should not be taken as medical advice or used as a recommendation for any specific treatment. Always consult your doctor before making any decisions.

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