College students are among the most sleep-deprived people in the country. This may be due to the irregularity of their sleeping habits. According to a 2001 study, only 11% of college students have good sleep quality, and 73% have occasional sleep problems. This same study found that 18% of college men and 30% of college women reported suffering from insomnia within the past 3 months, and over half reported feeling sleepy during the morning.
This is especially true for college students, since the deep sleep that occurs early in the night and the dream sleep that occurs later in the night are both required to learn. But the necessary amount of sleep varies from individual to individual. This is one case where quality is more important than quantity - if you feel alert and rested during the day, you've probably gotten enough sleep.
On the other hand, pulling all-nighters can interfere with your ability to learn new material. You can memorize facts during an all-night study session and recall the information through short-term memory for a test the next day, but you will most likely have to re-learn the material for a later cumulative exam.
Sleep debts result from not getting enough sleep for several nights. Building up your sleep debt results in a decrease in daytime function. It can affect your physical health by weakening your immune system. It can affect your mental health by resulting in tension, irritability, depression, confusion, and generally lower life satisfaction. These mood changes may also result from irregular sleeping patterns, including sleeping in on the weekends.
It's well documented that sleep deprived students perform significantly worse than students who regularly get a good night's sleep. REM sleep is particularly important for consolidating newly learned information, and a large proportion of REM sleep occurs towards the end of the night. So studying most of the night for a test, and then sleeping only a few hours, decreases your ability to remember new information.
Not getting enough sleep also seriously impairs your ability to drive. Driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated - more than 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year result from traffic accidents involving sleepy drivers.
Here are a few things you can do to make falling asleep easier and to make sleep more restful:
Sleeping pills may be prescribed by a doctor or bought over the counter. Prescription sleep aids can lead to dependence and become less effective if used for long periods of time. There are basically three types of prescription sleep aids:
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps calm you down and is found in most protein-containing foods and dairy products. Adding honey or other carbohydrates helps facilitate the entry of tryptophan into the brain. B vitamins, especially B6, also help in the absorption of tryptophan. Calcium is also a natural calming agent and is found in all dairy products. Some herbal teas are especially calming, including chamomile, lemon verbena, lemon balm, passion flower, peppermint, and red clover.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body during the night. Studies have found that melatonin supplements may improve sleep for 5% of people with sleep disturbances. Valerian, chamomile, kavakava, California poppy, skullcap, St. John's Wort, and hops are some of the other herbal supplements being promoted as sleep aids, but they haven't undergone the rigorous testing required of prescription drugs. When using herbal sleep aids, it's important to use them as infrequently and in as low a dose as possible, and to check with your doctor for possible interactions with any medications you're taking.
Special thanks for the content on this page, used with permission from Brown University's Student Health Services
National Sleep Foundation: Great information about sleep health, sleep problems, and strategies for improving sleep.
WebMD: 10 Tips for Better Sleep
Mayo Clinic: 7 Steps to Better Sleep
Get Self Help: Sleep Self-Help Resource
Page updated January 2013 by Mark Huttemier, MA, LPC. Personal Counselor in Student Health and Counseling at University of Wisconsin – River Falls