Student loan debt isn’t the only deficit students have to worry about—sleep debt can also leave them feeling depleted. “Sleep debt is an accumulation of sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist in California and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It’s a big issue: Nearly 70 percent of college students reported that they sleep less than eight hours a night, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Sleep problems rank third on students’ list of issues that affect their academic success, according to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (Fall 2016).
Sleep debt can affect students’ overall mental, physical, and emotional health, including:
Academic performance Students who are sleep deprived struggle more academically and are at a higher risk of failing compared with those who are getting enough rest on a consistent basis, says a 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep. “Sleep deprivation affects cognitive function directly and quickly,” says Dr. Breus.
Mood Female college students who reported nightly sleep debts of two hours or more were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms than those with smaller debts, a 2010 study in Psychiatry Research found.
Short of physically putting students to bed each night, how can administrators, faculty, and staff build a culture that promotes healthy sleep rather than one that glamorizes all-nighters? Here are some places to start:
Spread sleep hygiene awareness
Only a quarter of students report that they’re getting information from their schools about healthy sleep habits, according to the National College Health Assessment (Fall 2016). But over 60 percent of students say they want that information. To close the gap, launch a public awareness campaign and train student leaders and staff to share strategies for building healthy sleep habits. Consider how you can make this work for commuter students and other populations that spend limited time on campus. A semester-long study at Macalester College in Minnesota, found that students who received sleep health information from campus staff two or three times throughout the semester reported fewer negative sleep habits.
Offer a sleep course
Creating a class about sleep is a way to boost students’ sleep hygiene. Stanford University in California created a course dedicated to sleep behaviors back in the 1970s. Today, it’s so popular there’s a wait list. Based on Stanford’s success, New York University, the University of Missouri, and others have implemented similar courses. And so can you. Consider making the course available online so students juggling full-time work with full-time study can benefit as well.
Educate your educators
Campus staff can sometimes be in the best position to spot widespread sleep deprivation, so don’t stop the awareness campaign with students. Train college professionals to be able to provide information to students and intervene if they notice their students are routinely nodding off in class or displaying other signs of extreme fatigue.
Create a sleep-friendly space on campus
Studies show that students who take more naps do better in class. College students with GPAs of 3.5 and higher were much more likely to be nappers than were their peers with lower GPAs in a 2010 study in Sleep and Breathing. With that in mind, nap pods, library cots, and special nap rooms on campus are becoming more popular. Schools like the University of Michigan and James Madison University in Virginia have established campus nap zones to make it easier for students to practice good sleep habits with the same diligence they approach good study habits.
Michael Breus, PhD, fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Los Angeles, California.
Shelley Hershner, MD, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorders Clinic, University of Michigan.
DiGiulio, S. (2016, April 20). The surprising way colleges are helping their students sleep more. [Blog]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sleep-class-college-courses-teach-students-how-to-sleep_us_571578bae4b0060ccda425a2
Eliasson, A. H., Lettieri, C. J., & Eliasson, A. H. (2010). Early to bed, early to rise! Sleep habits and academic performance in college students. Sleep and Breathing, 14(1), 71–75.
Greenbaum, D. (2016, July 26). The 5 best night filters for Android. Guiding Tech. Retrieved from http://www.guidingtech.com/60491/best-android-night-filters/
Harvard Health Publications. (2015, September 2). Blue light has a dark side. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side
Hershner, S., & Chervin, R. D. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep, 6, 73–84. doi:10.2147/NSS.S62907
Huffington Post. (2013, June 2). Sleeping tips: 7 ways to get to bed earlier tonight. [Blog]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/02/sleeping-tips-earlier-bedtime_n_3359469.html
Ku Leuven. (2014). Want better marks? Get a good night’s sleep. Kuleuven.be. Retrieved from http://www.kuleuven.be/english/news/2014/for-better-marks-get-a-good-nights-sleep
Leproult, R., & Van Couter, E. (2010). Role of sleep and sleep loss in hormonal release and metabolism. Pediatric Neuroendocrinology, 17, 11–21. doi:10.1159/000262524
Lund, H. G., Reider, B. D., Whiting, A. B., & Pritchard, J. R. (2010). Sleep patterns and predictors of disturbed sleep in a large population of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(2), 124–132.
Mark, M., Wang, Y., Niiya, M., & Reich, S. (2016, May 12). Sleep debt in student life: Online attention focus, Facebook, and mood. Paper presented at Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, San Jose, California. Retrieved from https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/Chi16%20Sleep.pdf
Mercola, J. (2016, March 3). What happens in your body when you’re sleep deprived. Mercola.com. Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/03/03/sleep-deprivation-effects.aspx
Milewski, M. D., Skaggs, D. L., Bishop, G. A., Pace, J. L., et al. (2014, March). Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics, 34(2), 129–33. doi:10.1097/BPO.0000000000000151
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2012, February 22) Strategies for getting enough sleep. National Health Institutes. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/strategies
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). How to get rid of sleep debt. Sleep.org. Retrieved from https://sleep.org/articles/get-rid-of-sleep-debt/
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Say goodbye to sleep debt. Sleep.org. Retrieved from https://sleep.org/articles/say-goodbye-sleep-debt/
Potkin, K. T., & Bunney, W. E. (2012, August). Sleep improves memory: The effect of sleep on long term memory in early adolescence. PLOS One, 7(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042191
Pritchard, J., Cunningham, B., & Broek, L. (2013). Enhancing college student sleep: Programming strategies that could work on your campus. American College Health Association. Retrieved from http://www.cccstudentmentalhealth.org/docs/misc/EnhancingCollegeStudentSleep-ProgrammingStrategies.pdf
Regestein, Q., Natarajan, V., Pavlova, M., Kawasaki, S., et al. (2010, March 30). Sleep debt and depression in female college students. Psychiatry Research, 176(1), 34–39. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2008.11.006
Waxman, O. (2014, August 29). Napping around: Colleges provide campus snooze rooms. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3211964/nap-rooms-at-universities/
Webster, M. (2008, May 6). Can you catch up on lost sleep? Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-can-you-catch-up-on-sleep/