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Not Getting Enough Sleep in College: How Bad Is It Really?

Whether they’re slumming it on a dorm bunk or living large atop a king size mattress college students are notorious for pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and write papers, and for staying up late on most other nights to party and socialize. Sleep isn’t exactly a top priority for most of us. Even though it’s been drilled into our heads over and over again how important it is, so are classes, club meetings, extracurricular activities, and maintaining relationships. I mean, how bad can a few all-nighters a semester really be? Sleeping in on the weekends cancels them out, right? How much sleep are we really getting… and is it enough?

How much are college students sleeping?

In an online survey of 100 college students, 68% reported sleeping six or seven hours per night on weekdays, with another 20% sleeping five hours or less. Upon first glance, six or seven hours may seem like a decent amount of sleep, but Sharon Glezen, MD, Medical Chief of University Health Services at the University of Rochester, warns that “the need for sleep differs from patient to patient. Some college students are awake and alert after six hours of sleep per night and others require nine or more.”

Because of this variation, as well as the fact that the quality of sleep can differ (seven hours of tossing and turning definitely isn’t the same as seven hours of deep sleep), it’s more important to focus not on how much students are sleeping across the board, but whether or not they are sleeping enough. This is subjective and can be gauged by how students feel the next day – how tired or rested they feel.

In the spring of 2010, the American College Health Association conducted their National College Health Assessment, a nationwide survey on health behaviors and trends of college students, gathering 95,712 student responses from 139 different schools. The questions on sleep habits below show that while there is a large range of responses, students generally feel well rested only half of the time, and sleepy or dragged out on all the other days. Seeing as our schedules are usually packed every single day of the week, feeling rested for only two or three of those days, the most popular responses, probably isn’t cutting it. 

What Goes On Beyond the Surveys

While these studies show that college students are not doing horribly on average, we all know what really goes on during the semester. Sleeping becomes a luxury at certain points in the semester and most of us have put it on the back burner at some point or another.

As Sarah, a sophomore at UCLA, stated, “It’s just a cruel vicious cycle. I stay up late during the week catching up on stuff so I’m completely exhausted by Friday. So then I sleep until the afternoon on the weekend, get behind on work again, and end up barely sleeping all week again to catch up.” The online survey showed that crashing on the weekends is the case for many of us: 72% reported sleeping eight or nine hours on the weekend, with a whopping 28% sleeping ten or more hours then. 

It might not always be this bad, though. Sometimes we only have to sacrifice a huge amount of sleep for studying during midterms, finals, or if we have some huge presentation coming up. Courtney, a senior, recalls how “freshman year was a disaster but then I learned to manage my time better. Now I usually get enough rest but finals week is still always bad. I probably sleep half the amount I normally do.”

One student at the University of Rochester explains how she typically sleeps at a reasonable time, but often naps instead of actually sleeping on nights before exams. “I’ll stay up until 3am, and set my alarm for 6 to cram for the last two hours before the test. So it’s more like a nap… and usually on a couch in the library.”

So is one case worse than the other – being sleep-deprived on a regular basis versus just right before important exams or papers that are due?

Short Term Effects

It turns out that the short term effects for both cases are exactly the same. Any time you don’t sleep enough, your body isn’t repairing itself and you won’t even remember most of whatever it is you’re studying at 4am anyway. Even if you stay up for a day or two after getting eight hours a night the entire rest of the semester, you’re just as susceptible to the short term effects as someone who consistently sleeps five hours Monday through Friday and ten hours on the weekend.

Beyond feeling tired, lack of sleep may have many consequences, according to Dr. Glezen, even in the short term. Some of these include:

  • Decreased alertness: Probably the most obvious side effect, not sleeping enough means your body isn’t being refreshed and your energy levels aren’t being restored, so you feel lethargic and drowsy, and have difficulty focusing on tasks.
  • Memory and cognitive impairment: Those all-nighters are usually counterproductive. You might get through a few extra chapters and skim through a few more lectures notes, but your ability to process that information and actually recall it during the test is drastically reduced if you skip the sleep and head straight for the exam after leaving the library.
  • Strained relationships: Mornings are rough enough, and the more sleep-deprived you are the more irritable, cranky, and moody you’ll be. Your normal morning cup of coffee won’t do you any good either if you’ve already been chugging it all night.
  • Increased risk of injury: Whether you’re working, driving or just performing everyday tasks, the combination of the above effects and being less alert overall leads to higher chances of carelessness and accidents that could be avoided with proper rest. Risk of automobile accidents in particular is increased, says Dr. Glezen, putting both yourself and others in danger.


Lost Sleep is Hard to Make Up

Even though these effects are all short term, that doesn’t make them easy to reverse. Sleeping extra on the weekends seems like a good idea, but in reality, it doesn’t actually prevent or reverse any effects caused by not sleeping much during the week. The sleep debt that we rack up isn’t something we can pay back hour for hour, even if you aren’t regularly pulling all-nighters, and the effects linger for as long as the poor sleep habits do.

Studies by the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital showed that one long night of sleep after several days of sleep deprivation only reduced the effects of sleep deprivation for the six hours after waking up. After that, all of the normal short term effects resurfaced. Obviously, our days are longer than six hours, so while you may feel okay right when you wake up, you probably won’t later in the day.

“Research subjects who were deprived of sleep the first night after learning still showed no sign of improvement even after two subsequent nights of full sleep,” explains Dr. James B. Maas, the professor at Cornell University who coined the term “power nap” and author of Sleep for Success. “The simple truth is if you’re not sleeping after learning new information, you might as well spare yourself the trouble of learning in the first place.”

So, whether you’re just lacking sleep during finals week or not doesn’t really matter, and sacrificing a night’s worth of sleep can be pointless since studying is the reason most of us stay up late in the first place. “I’ve seen people fall asleep in the middle of exams before, definitely. They’re always the ones bragging about how they spent all night and morning cramming,” laughs one University of Rochester junior. 

Long Term Effects

While any amount of sleep deprivation causes us to be exhausted, slow, and moody in the short term, chronic sleep deprivation can also have effects that last beyond college. Even occasional all-nighters add up over the years and can contribute to the following:

  • Increased risk of common illnesses: Though each individual is different, many studies have linked lack of sleep to increased risks of many common diseases, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and diabetes. When we sleep our bodies produce critical hormones that regulate these processes, so if we don’t, then the balances are thrown off and we are more susceptible to these complications.
  • Obesity: A problem at the center of attention for the past few years, obesity has been linked to lack of sleep, not only due to deregulation of appetite-suppressing hormones, but also because of what we’re using to stay awake. Look around any library or classroom and you’re likely to find a cup of Starbucks, a can of some type of energy drink, or a bag of sugar-laden snacks in at least one student’s possession.
  • Aging: As if those reasons aren’t convincing enough, let’s consider the term “beauty sleep.” Well, turns out it’s real. When we sleep, our bodies produce growth hormones that repair cells and tissues as well as collagen, a buzzword for all those fancy (and expensive!) anti-aging creams on the market, the protein that keeps our skin hydrated, youthful, and healthy. Getting the proper amount of sleep will help you keep your glow and your money.

How to Catch Some More Zzz’s

Going to bed earlier is a simple solution, but not an easy one to follow through on considering our busy schedules. Besides working on time management so you don’t have to resort to those all-nighters in the first place, Dr. Glezen advises that college students learn good “sleep hygiene” which includes:

  • Regular aerobic exercise, though not late at night
  • Avoidance of caffeine late in the day
  • Avoidance of alcohol, which may help students to be able to fall asleep but may cause disrupted sleep later in the night
  • A regular schedule for both going to bed and waking up in the morning, including weekends

Check out these other helpful tips to ensure you get enough sleep tonight.

Sharon Glezen, MD, Medical Chief of University Health Services at the University of Rochester
Sleep for Success: Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask, Dr. James B. Maas, Rebecca S. Robbins
Various undergraduate students
American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment, Spring 2010
Mayo Clinic
LA Times
British Medical Journal
Associated Content

Nan Zhu is a junior at the University of Rochester, class of 2012, double majoring in Molecular Genetics and Studio Arts with a minor in Spanish. She escaped her hometown of Farmington, Connecticut to pursue a combined program in medicine at UR, but balances out textbooks with canvases and study sessions with studio time. She works as a Resident Advisor for a freshmen hall that always keeps her on her toes, Head Studio Assistant at the art center on campus, and a Teaching Assistant for the Biology Department. During those rare moments of free time, you'll find her laughing at any and all corny jokes, experimenting in the kitchen, and spontaneously brainstorming new art projects. Next on Nan's list of life goals are learning how to surf and traveling to Italy and Spain.