What College Students Need To Know About Sleep Deprivation

Photographed by Michael Beckert.

There are so many things to look forward to when you're going to college, but resting and relaxing typically aren't items that make the list. College is about hookups in twin XL beds, late-night coffee in the library, and all-night parties. In truth, you'll never have as much energy as you do in college, but you also run the risk of getting sleep-deprived, fast.

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Being “sleep-deprived” means that you’re getting less sleep than the amount your body needs to feel fully rested, explains Jennifer Martin, PhD, clinical sleep psychologist and associate professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, and spokesperson for the AASM. Most people need at least seven hours of sleep, but undergraduate college students tend to be an age that requires a little bit more, she says. Sleep deprivation becomes a problem when you get a lot less sleep than you need, or you consistently get a little less than you need, she says. 

The most obvious sign that you’re sleep-deprived is feeling sleepy, like you could doze off in your lecture hall or quiet library, for example, Dr. Martin says. Or, you might feel like you have to rely on tons of coffee and loud music to stay awake. “A lot of people do things to cover sleep deprivation up,” she says. But just because you can get away with very little sleep, there are some negative health impacts of sleep deprivation you should know about.

“Simply put, when you’re sleep deprived, your brain doesn’t function at 100%,” Dr. Martin says. That means, your brain is less able to learn and encode new information, and it’s harder to recall the information that is in your brain, she says. Obviously, there’s more to college than just getting good grades, but you can imagine how this would make it hard to study, the thing you’re primarily there to do. 

The other thing about sleep deprivation is that it can impair your decision-making abilities. “When people are sleep-deprived, they’re not as good at regulating their emotions,” Dr. Martin says. (That’s why you’re more likely to burst into tears when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed.) This is an underrated consequence that college students need to be aware of, because there’s high potential to make some poor decisions when your guard is down and you need sleep. Thinking about the long-term, though, we know that poor quality or insufficient sleep is linked to an increased risk for depression and anxiety, she says. Beyond your grades and school performance, it’s important to prioritize your sleep hygiene as an act of self-care. 

“The advice I give anyone, regardless of their age, is to protect their sleep time first, then schedule everything else around it,” Dr. Martin says. Allow yourself eight hours of protected time for sleep, she suggests. If that means skipping a late-night movie with your roommate, or heading home after a pregame to sleep, so be it. Also watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, because those are two substances that can negatively impact the quality of your sleep. If you know you have trouble functioning in the morning, then see if you can schedule your classes at a later time in the day. “Structure your course schedule to respect your own internal clock, otherwise it’ll be difficult for you to perform,” she adds. 

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If you’re doing everything you can to get shut-eye, but you still feel groggy all the time (or you have other symptoms like snoring, or chronic insomnia), you might want to go see a doctor, because it could be a sign of a sleep disorder. “It can be really important to reach out and get help and treatment,” Dr. Martin says. 

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