The Truth About How Much Sleep You Actually Need

Let’s be honest. As collegiettes, we don’t just wake up and smell the coffee—we finish the whole pot. We turn to quick fixes to get going in the morning instead of focusing on the real problem: poor sleeping habits, or as doctors call it, sleep hygiene.

According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, college students reported an average of seven hours of shuteye per night. That means half us are getting less than that on a given night.

With a full course load, a busy social life, and internship applications to complete, sleep is typically the first thing that students sacrifice. We’ve heard the supposed stats, but to find out just how much sleep college students really need per night, we talked to Ginette Archinal, M.D., a university physician and medical director of student health at Elon University.

By the numbers

The signs are hard to miss: tired eyes, irritability, a foggy brain in class and desperation for caffeine. Reports vary, but when it comes down to numbers, Dr. Archinal stands by the general consensus that college-age students need between eight and nine hours of good, quality sleep each night.

“That means being able to fall asleep within 30 minutes of bedtime, and staying asleep—not waking up frequently,” she explains. While everyone is different, this is a good rule of thumb to stick to. “It is the rare person who can be healthy on less than seven hours per night on a regular basis.”

Collegiettes rejoice: there is some wiggle room here. Students are known to play catch up on weekends when it comes to sleep. On weeknights, students reported getting anywhere from one to three hours less than other nights, but slept much longer and later on weekends. Lucky for us, Dr. Archinal says that sleeping longer the night after a disrupted slumber can still be beneficial as long as it isn’t something you rely on regularly.

“Some recent data shows that a 20 to 30 minute nap in the afternoon following a night of inadequate sleep improved mental and physical alertness,” she says. “If someone is having frequent nights when they cannot sleep or do not have restful sleep, the cause should be checked out.”

How much is too much?

Before you make a habit of this give-and-take sleep schedule, it’s important to note that the catch-up game typically catches us in the end. Oversleeping can leave you just as bleary-eyed as barely sleeping at all. “People can be groggy if they sleep more than 10 hours a night,” Dr. Archinal says. “There is some data to support that more than 10 is as unhealthy as less than seven.”

What might cause you to sleep too much? Some common triggers include heavy drinking the night before, sleep aids, pain medication and depression.

Your body on sleep deprivation

Eight hours might seem like an ambitious feat, but the key here is quality, not just quantity of your snooze. As we sleep, our bodies are working to repair and restore cells. “Poor sleep causes persistent elevation of insulin,” Dr. Archinal explains. This can lead to weight gain and the development of diabetes, or hypertension. It can make you grumpy and irritable, or bring out any underlying depression or anxiety.

Worst of all, sleep deprivation is often linked to lower immunity—that means you’re prone to more frequent infections, like coughs and colds. According to a study published to Advance in Neuroimmunology, partial sleep deprivation in young adults decreased cellular immune function. This was intensified after total sleep deprivation—something we collegiettes know as an “all-nighter”.

Whether you have a morning exam that you haven’t begun studying for, or you stay up way past last call, more often than not, college students have experienced at least one all-nighter before graduation. “The occasional all-nighter is something we all have done,” Dr. Archinal says. “The immediate effect is crashing the next day, especially after needing caffeine to stimulate cognition and physical state for exams, class or work the next morning.”

A study from the University of Boulder explored the effects of caffeine on catch-up sleep following a sleepless night. Although caffeine improved initial alertness and clear-headedness after staying up all night, it disturbed the recovery sleep and led to a worse sleep quality even five hours later. So whenever possible, avoid using caffeine as a way to make up for lack of sleep!

Sleep longer and better tonight

It’s no mystery why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep a national public health epidemic. Instead of reaching for the espresso as a Band-Aid fix, try to adopt some sleep tips from the National Sleep Foundation for a longer, more fulfilling sleep tonight.

  • Even if your schedule is different from day to day, try to get to bed and wake up around the same time each day.
  • As it gets closer to bedtime, avoid large meals and stick to a small snack if hunger strikes after dinner.
  • Avoid doing homework or watching TV in bed, especially in a dorm where the room is your kitchen, bedroom and living room in one. Your bed should be used for sleep, and sleep only.
  • Your room should be dark and quiet while you sleep: two things often hard to come by in a dorm.
  • If you are lucky enough to have control over the temperature, try to keep it at a happy medium between warm and cold.
  • Make time for your workout in earlier in the day. Physical activity might give you a surge of energy too close to bedtime, making it difficult to fall asleep.

We hate to say it, but it turns out Mom was right all along. As collegiettes, we should stick to the golden rule of eight to nine hours of quality sleep per night. If your never-ending to-do list makes that seem impossible, start small. Not every night will be perfect, but keep in mind that when you sacrifice sleep, you risk a lot more than just a little fatigue in the morning.