1. Home
  2. »
  3. College Resource Center
  4. »
  5. Guide to Balancing Sleep & Study

Guide to Sleep for College Students & Older Teens Expert Advice on How to Get a Good Night’s Rest

Sleep deprivation and students go hand in hand. Between classes, exams, work, extracurricular and social activities, and homework high school and college students aren’t getting enough sleep each night, which can have a major impact on their health as well as their GPAs. Learn why catching enough Z’s can help you earn more A’s, and get strategies to create and maintain a healthy balance between life, school and sleep.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Ann Romaker UC College of Medicine and University of Cincinnati Sleep Medicine Center
Dr. Whitney Roban Family Sleep Specialist

WRITTEN BY Kenya McCullum

How Much Sleep is Enough?

Getting a good night’s rest has a number of benefits, but how many hours is considered “good”? Everyone has heard the general advice that people should get at least eight hours of sleep per night. But the amount of sleep people need varies depending on their age group. For teenagers in high school, eight hours of sleep is the minimum amount, but for good health, they should really get up to ten. College students, on the other hand, should get about seven to nine hours of sleep. This amount is also generally recommended for online students who are over the age of 26.

But that’s not all. Sleep pattern is also important. Factors that can affect sleep pattern include:

  • Sleep latency – How long it takes to go from “lights out” to asleep
  • Sleep efficiency – The total time in bed compared to time spent sleeping
  • Wake after sleep onset – Or “WASO”, which is the amount of time you wake up in the middle of the night before actually waking up
  • Wake time after sleep offset – Or “WASF”, which accounts for long periods of wakefulness after an unusual early morning awakening
  • REM latency – The time between sleep onset and REM sleep

A good night’s rest is a combination of enough hours of sleep and quality sleep patterns.

Benefits of a Proper Night’s Rest

Getting a good night’s sleep can make students feel like they can tackle everything on their plate. But that’s not the only reason to get enough sleep. Teens and college students who fit in seven to eight hours of sleep every night are more likely to see the following benefits:

Improved grades

Studies show that students who get a good night’s sleep perform better academically. Research conducted by the University of Georgia found that one in four students surveyed reported that sleep deprivation negatively impacted their grades and in some cases, resulted in the need to withdraw from a course entirely. The journal Scientific Reports also found that students who didn’t maintain a regular sleep schedule were more likely to perform poorly in class compared to those who did.

Better memory

High school and college students need to process tons of new information daily during their waking hours. That information is then sorted and organized by the brain during sleep cycles. The more sleep students get, the more efficient their brain is at retaining important information and setting aside things that are irrelevant.

Lowered risk of obesity

There’s a reason why all-night cramming sessions and pizza go together so well. When students are sleep deprived, the body produces more of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin, which stimulates appetite and promotes fat storage. As a result, your body craves high calorie foods. But the chances of weight gain associated with lack of sleep don’t end there. Sleep increases leptin levels in the body, which is a hormone designed to curb appetite.

Decreased chances of getting sick

Students who are sleep deprived are more likely to get sick because their immune systems aren’t functioning at the most optimal level. During sleep, the body releases proteins called cytokines, which are needed when you have an infection or are under stress. If you’re chronically sleep deprived, cytokine production is reduced and your body also releases fewer antibodies, which makes you more susceptible to viruses. Lack of sleep also affects recovery time so when you do get a cold or the flu, it’ll take you longer to get over it.

Improved mood

Good sleep leads to mental well-being. Even just one night of disturbed sleep or not enough sleep can make students feel moody, irritable, sad and sluggish the next day. And prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to more serious mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Consequences of Sleep Loss

Students who get enough sleep can reap many benefits, but those who don’t may suffer serious consequences. The following are some examples of the problems that sleep deprivation can cause.

Impaired brain development

Sleep deprivation can be particularly harmful for teens. “The striatum/basal ganglia undergoes a change during adolescence,” says Dr. Lynelle M. Schneeberg, Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Sleep Center. “If students are deprived of sleep during this period of their life, they’re more likely to have decreased activity in this part of the brain, which is the part that affects risk-taking behavior.”

Poor coordination

When you’re sleep deprived, you’re not as alert or coordinated. This might not sound like such a big deal but if you’re a student who commutes to and from school, it can be. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that in a survey of 1,039 college students, 16% admitted to drowsy driving and 2% percent said they got into a car accident due to lack of sleep. And if you’re a sleep deprived student-athlete, your performance and coordination will likely suffer and could cost your team a win.

Increased negative feelings, including suicide

Insufficient sleep can make some students feel hopeless and even suicidal. A study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence examined suburban high school students in Fairfax County, Virginia who had very early school start times and found that each hour of sleep a teenager lost was associated with a 38% increase in hopeless feelings and a 42% increase in suicidal thoughts. Each hour of sleep lost was also associated with a 58% increase in actual suicide attempts.

8 Expert Tips to Help You Get Enough Sleep

Sometimes getting a good night’s rest is a lot easier said than done. But even the most sleep deprived student can get back on track – and develop better sleep hygiene – with these expert tips:

Take proper naps (but limit them)

Did you know there’s a proper way to take a nap? It might sound counterintuitive but daytime naps can really put a kink in your nighttime sleeping if done wrong. “Avoid naps if you can,” says Dr. Aneesa Das, MD, Assistant Director of The Ohio State Sleep Disorders Center. “If you need to take a nap, do it before 4 p.m. and it should be no more than 20 to 30 minutes to avoid that groggy feeling that occurs when you’re awakened suddenly during your sleep cycle.”

Avoid afternoon caffeine

While caffeine is often the drink of choice among students who need to fuel lengthy study sessions or all-night paper writing, it’s best to avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks after about four in the afternoon or earlier. Caffeine can impact sleep for up to eight hours after students drink it because it increases brain wave activity. Even if you’re able to fall asleep during this time, it will be lighter and less restorative than it should be.

Shut off all electronics before bed

This is a tough one for most teens and young adults but sleep specialist Dr. Whitney Roban says students should stop using electronic devices at least an hour before going to bed. “The blue light emitted from electronics tricks your brain into thinking it’s day time and your body decreases the amount of melatonin it secretes, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep,” she explains.

Don’t fall asleep with the TV on

Some students say the soft sounds of a television helps them fall asleep. That may be true but having the TV on does nothing for the quality of your sleep. As programs change or go in and out of commercials, there are variations in audio. You might not be fully awake during this time and may not even wake up at all, but these small variations can affect overall sleep quality.

Set a regular sleep schedule and stick to it

“To function optimally, your body clock needs regularity,” says Dr. Ann Romaker, Associate Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the UC College of Medicine, and Director of the University of Cincinnati Sleep Medicine Center. She goes on to say most people can handle an hour’s difference from day to day, but staying up all night, even just one night, and then sleeping all the next day can mess up your body clock and throw you off for over a week. “There are clock genes in every organ, and they need to remain coordinated for the immune system, hormonal systems, heart, lungs, brain, etc. to function optimally and to repair damage from the preceding wake period,” she says.

Create a space that maximizes sleep

Environment and ambiance can make a big difference when it comes to getting a good night’s rest. Creating a designated, comfortable area that’s only for sleeping can help your mind and body prepare for quality sleep. “Arrange your bedroom or dorm room into three zones – one for sleeping, one for relaxing and one for studying,” recommends Schneeberg. “This will help keep the bed associated only with sleeping.”

Practice meditation

Meditation is the practice of slowing down the mind by focusing on the breath or a mantra. It can help students improve their sleep because it slows down metabolic activity. In addition, meditation is associated with reduced anxiety and feelings of anxiety can easily keep any student up at night.

Consider sleep medications or natural supplements

Students who suffer from insomnia may want to consider seeing a doctor to discuss sleep medications like zaleplon, zolpidem, eszopiclone and doxepine. These medications improve your sleep/wake cycle, making a better night’s sleep more possible. If you prefer a more natural approach, supplements like magnesium, calcium and melatonin may help combat sleep problems.

Why College Students & Teens Are Sleep Deprived

Good sleep is dependent on several factors – a regular sleep/wake schedule, a quiet environment and healthy diet, to name a few. But in most cases, teens and college students aren’t able to achieve those things. Studying/homework is a major contributing factor for sleep deprivation among college and high school students, but it’s not the only one. Other top reasons include:

According to a study of 1,845 students conducted by the Journal of American College Health, 27% were at risk for developing a sleep disorder. The most common sleep disorders among students are restless legs disorder and periodic limb movement disorder, insomnia, circadian rhythm sleep disorders and obstructive sleep apnea.

From their laptops to tablets to cell phones, students can’t live without technology – and social media. The light emitted from these devices makes falling asleep more difficult. And the constant stimulus of social media doesn’t help either. Scrolling through photos, status updates, tweets or even reading an online article keeps your brain and body awake and alert. On top of that, it creates a learned association between bed and socializing, instead of bed and sleeping.

Work hard, play hard – that’s what most college students do. If they’re not studying or working, they’re up all night, hanging out with friends and enjoying a newfound freedom. Having fun isn’t a bad thing, but several nights of staying up late can take a toll on you mentally, physically and academically. “Late night partying gets in the way of consistent sleep schedules and the required amount of sleep per night,” says Roban.

For high school students, early start times can mean less sleep the night before. Same goes for college students with an early morning class. But even if students get to bed at an appropriate time, they may not get enough sleep before having to get up the next morning. According to Schneeberg, melatonin is released later in the evening after students reach puberty, which means they may have a hard time falling sleep. “High school start times require rise times that don’t match teen’s preferred sleep schedules,” says Schneeberg.

High school and college is stressful and sometimes emotional. The stress alone can be enough to keep students awake at night but some turn to drugs and alcohol to unwind. While alcohol and some drugs are sedatives that induce sleep, that doesn’t mean students get quality sleep when they’ve been drinking or are on drugs. Both alcohol and drugs can cause fragmented sleep which means you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and never achieve REM sleep.

Energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages are extremely popular among college students and teens. In fact, 34% and 31% of people 18 to 24 and 12 to 17 years old, respectively, have an energy drink on a regular basis, according to the American College of Medical Toxicology. Drinking energy drinks can become a vicious cycle because students consume them when they’re tired and in turn, the high caffeine content of these beverages causes sleep disruptions that prevent them from getting proper sleep.

How to Balance Sleep & Studying

As a student, it may feel like you always have to study. While that’s fairly accurate, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a good balance between sleep and studying. To find a happy medium that works for your lifestyle, your mind and your body, try the following: