Adequate, refreshing sleep is one of the most important ingredients of a successful college career. A recent survey of Luther students shows that in the 7 days before the survey, only 12 percent of students surveyed felt rested in the morning. Additionally, national surveys show that almost 20 percent of college students’ report sleep difficulties as a top impediment to academic performance.

Missing one night of sleep is not a disaster; the main impact of a poor night’s sleep is that you will get very sleepy and may have difficulty with focus, may react more slowly, and may have a bit less motivation the following day. You may have more difficulty with repetitive or boring tasks and your ability to make crucial judgments or think creatively may be impaired. You are probably in the most danger after a missed night of sleep if you engage in an activity such as driving. Missing adequate sleep on a regular basis may have more significant effects.

Each person needs a set amount of sleep in a 24 hour cycle to perform well. Missing out on that sleep incurs a “sleep debt” that can impact our functioning, and which accumulates over time. Caffeine or other stimulants do not replace repaying your sleep debt with needed sleep. Meanwhile, your unpaid sleep debt may cause:

  • Decreased alertness and ability to maintain focus, thus decreasing your productivity and ability to learn, remember, and create. Decreased alertness can cause serious accidents.
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased energy and motivation
  • Poor physical control, coordination, and increased impulsiveness, such as an inexplicable desire to eat
  • Physical pain, such as headache

All-nighters are a popular way to catch up academically for many students. Research shows that if you use all-nighters, your GPA is slightly lower on average. All-nighters have been shown to:

  • Impair mental function
  • Weaken the immune and cardiovascular systems
  • Cause weight gain

Athletes who get an extra amount of sleep have been shown to improve their game performance.

Adequate sleep helps one maintain mood, memory, and cognitive performance. Missing adequate sleep on an ongoing basis is more seriously impairing than one night of sleeplessness. Even small sleep losses day after day can add up to cause poor attention, inability to respond, slow thinking, impaired memory, erratic behavior, and irritability, along with slowed mental functioning.

Professional staff at the Counseling Service are available to talk with you about your sleep difficulties and to explore options for improving your sleep habits. Generally, over-the-counter sleeping medications are not effective over the long term, and often there are behavioral changes that can be made to positively impact the quality and quantity of one’s sleep.

Getting A Good Night’s Sleep

Leading experts in sleep research strongly emphasize how critical good sleep is to the quality of life and health. James B. Mass, Ph.D., professor in the psychology department at Cornell University, states, “Most adults are moderately to severely sleep deprived, and it affects their productivity, their work, and their relationships. If we treated machines like we treat the human body, we would be accused of reckless endangerment.” Mass stresses that good sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity. “Your alertness, energy, performance, thinking, productivity, creativity, safety, and health will be affected by how much you sleep. Good sleep is the best predictor of quality of life.” Making time for adequate sleep is essential. Beyond this first step, there are a number of steps that can improve both the quality and amount of your sleep.

  • Exercise during the day, preferably in the late afternoon before dinner. Engage in an activity that gets your heart beating, raises your body temperature, and gets you breathing hard for at least 20 minutes. Brisk walking can suffice.
  • Avoid heavy meals before bedtime, but also avoid going to bed hungry. A small snack about an hour before bedtime can be helpful.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption within two hours of bedtime. Don’t use alcohol as a sleeping aid. Avoid heavy alcohol use at any time.
  • Reduce caffeine consumption (coffee/tea/soda). If you must have these beverages, have them in the morning or early afternoon and have no more than two cups. Avoid caffeine-containing medications.
  • Quit smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant.
  • Don’t use pot or other drugs. In one way or another, they interfere with good sleep.
  • Be aware of whether your over-the-counter or prescription medications have the potential to disrupt sleep. Discuss this with your physician or pharmacist.
  • Avoid napping during the day, unless you take a quick “power nap” no longer than 20 minutes and no later than the afternoon.
  • Develop a sleep ritual before bedtime. This means engaging in relaxing activities every night at about the same time before you go to bed. Avoid vigorous physical or mental activity and emotional upsets before bedtime. A hot shower or bath may help you relax.
  • Go to bed and get up at regular times, on a schedule that allows you adequate sleep if you sleep well. If you have trouble sleeping, resist the temptation to stay in bed longer in the morning.
  • Consider your sleep environment. Reduce noise if needed through the use of ear plugs or a noise-masking machine. Keep your room temperature between 60 and 70 degrees. Make sure your bed and covers are comfortable.
  • Put your alarm clock where it can be heard but not seen. The bedroom should be a time-free environment. No clock watching!
  • Use your bed only for sleeping and sex. Eliminate non-sleep activities in bed (such as reading, watching TV, or doing work) to strengthen the association between your bed and sleeping (unless these other activities are part of your sleep ritual).
  • Don’t try to make yourself sleep. If you are unable to fall asleep after 20-30 minutes in bed, leave your bed, engage in a relaxing activity and don’t return to bed until you feel sleepy. Repeat if necessary.
  • If you have trouble getting to sleep, try not to get too upset. Do not fight, resist, or fear sleeplessness. This will make it harder to fall asleep. If you are unable to sleep, focus on relaxing physically and mentally. Tell yourself that the next day, you may be somewhat tired, but you will still be able to do what you need to do.
  • If you have consistent sleep problems, experiment with cutting down on your time in bed. You may be spending more hours in bed than the hours of sleep you need, so your sleep becomes thin and restless. Stick with your new schedule; it may take your body a few weeks to adjust.
  • Don’t use over-the-counter or prescription sleeping pills as more than a short-term treatment for insomnia (2-3 weeks at most). Taking sleeping pills for longer periods of time may cause greater sleep problems.

If you have tried these things for several weeks and continue to have difficulty sleeping, the Counseling Service or the Health Service are resources for further help.

For more information about how to get a good night's sleep, check out this video and article from Boston University.

Tips adapted from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. and No More Sleepless Nights by Peter Hauri, Ph.D. & Shirley Linde, Ph.D.