3.2 Sleep

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why students need adequate sleep to succeed in university.
  2. Determine how much sleep you need.
  3. Change your habits and routines in ways to ensure you get the sleep you need.

Like good nutrition and exercise, adequate sleep is crucial for wellness and success. Sleep is particularly important for students because there seem to be so many time pressures—to attend class, study, maintain a social life, and perhaps work—that most university students have difficulty getting enough. Yet sleep is critical in order to focus effectively at school. In a multi-year survey of students at 21 Canadian universities, 28.4% reported that sleep difficulties affected their academic performance (ACHA National College Health Assessment II, Canadian Reference Group, 2016).

The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep

Figure 3-3: Sharing a dorm room can make for some sleepless nights. Have a talk with your roommate about times that you’ll need sleep. Source:”Show suite in the College Quarter undergraduate student residences” https://www.flickr.com/photos/usask/5533311068/in/album-72157616131590356/ Permission:  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You may not realize the benefits of sleep, or the problems associated with being sleep deprived, because most likely you’ve had the same sleep habits for a long time. Or maybe you know you’re getting less sleep now, but with all the changes in your life, how can you tell if some of your stress or problems studying are related to not enough sleep?

On the positive side, a healthy amount of sleep has the following benefits[1]:

  • Improves your mood during the day
  • Improves your memory and learning abilities
  • Gives you more energy
  • Strengthens your immune system

In contrast, not getting enough sleep over time can lead to a wide range of health issues and student problems. Sleep deprivation can have the following consequences:

  • Affects mental health and contributes to stress and feelings of anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness (see
  • Causes sleepiness, difficulty paying attention in class, and ineffective studying
  • Weakens the immune system, making it more likely to catch colds and other infections
  • Increases the risk of accidents (such as while driving)
  • Contributes to weight gain

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Most adults need around eight hours of sleep per night[2]. Some say they need much less than that, but often their behavior during the day shows they are actually sleep deprived. Some genuinely need only about six hours a night, but that’s rare; only 5% of people have the genetic mutation that allows for this, and these people are thought to have more “efficient” sleep (see DOI: 10.1126/science.1174443). So how much sleep do you actually need?

There is no simple answer, in part because the quality of sleep is just as important as the number of hours a person sleeps. Sleeping fitfully for nine hours and waking during the night is usually worse than seven or eight hours of good sleep, so you can’t simply count the hours. Do you usually feel rested and alert all day long? Do you rise from bed easily in the morning without struggling with the alarm clock? Do you have no trouble paying attention to your instructors and never feel sleepy in a lecture class? Are you not continually driven to drink more coffee or caffeine-heavy “power drinks” to stay attentive? Are you able to get through work without feeling exhausted? If you answered yes to all of these, you likely are in that 10 percent to 15 percent of university students who consistently get enough sleep.

How to Get More and Better Sleep

You have to allow yourself enough time for a good night’s sleep, so schedule at least eight hours for sleeping every night. If you still don’t feel alert and energetic during the day, try increasing this to nine hours. Keep a sleep journal, and within a couple weeks you’ll know how much sleep you need and will be on the road to making new habits to ensure you get it.

Myths about Sleep

  • Having an alcoholic drink or two helps me sleep better. False: Although you may seem to fall asleep more quickly, alcohol makes sleep less restful, and you’re more likely to awake in the night.
  • Exercise before bedtime is good for sleeping. False: Exercise wakes up your body, and it may be some time before you unwind and relax. Exercise earlier in the day, however, is beneficial for sleep.
  • It helps to fall asleep after watching television or surfing the Web in bed. False: Rather than helping you unwind, these activities can engage your mind and make it more difficult to get to sleep. Exposure to light from screens can affect your sleep, too.

Tips for Success: Sleep

  • Avoid nicotine, which can keep you awake—yet another reason to stop smoking.
  • Avoid caffeine for six to eight hours before bed. Caffeine remains in the body for three to five hours on the average, much longer for some people. Remember that many soft drinks contain caffeine.
  • Don’t eat in the two to three hours before bed. Avoid alcohol before bedtime. While it can initally make you sleepy, you are more likely to wake up during the night.
  • Take shorter naps during the day. Limit your naps to 20 minutes or less to avoid a negative effect on your nighttime sleep.
  • Exercise earlier in the day (at least several hours before bedtime).
  • Try to get to bed and wake about the same time every day—your body likes a routine.
  • Make sure the environment is conducive to sleep: dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool.
  • Use your bed only for sleeping, not for studying, watching television, or other activities. Going to bed will become associated with going to sleep.
  • Establish a pre-sleep, winding-down routine, such as taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, or reading (not a textbook).

If you can’t fall asleep after ten to fifteen minutes in bed, it’s better to get up and do something else rather than lie there fitfully for hours. Do something you find restful (or boring). Read, or listen to a recorded book. Go back to bed when you’re sleepy.

If you frequently cannot get to sleep or are often awake for a long time during the night, you may be suffering from insomnia, a medical condition. Resist the temptation to try over-the-counter sleep aids. If you have tried the tips listed here and still cannot sleep, talk with your health-care provider or visit the student health clinic. Many remedies are available for those with true, persistent sleep problems.


  1. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. (2012). Why is Sleep Important? Retrieved from: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/why
  2. University of Saskatchewan Student Health Services. (2016). Sleep. Retrieved from: https://students.usask.ca/articles/sleep.php

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