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Sleeping much? At night—or in class? If these questions make you yawn or weep, you’re in good (but tired) company. Many students are night owls, prone to staying up late, then missing out on sleep to be up in the morning and crashing out during the day.

Your memory, mood, grades, and health depend on decent sleep. So how can you get it? Transforming into an early-morning lark is not a realistic goal. Aiming for eight hours might seem hopeless, too. So don’t. What you can do is make small gains: an extra half-hour here, 15 minutes there. “It makes a difference,” says Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Night owls come in different types. To find your sleep fixes, first identify which type of night owl you are.

Common night owl

commonBedtime midnight–2 a.m.

Short-term goal
No tech in bed

Strategies

Wake up 7–9.30 a.m. (even on weekends)

“Going to bed at the same time each night is one of the hardest things for students to do, partly because of exams and varying coursework. It’s more important to make their wake-up time more regular.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

Sleep facts

  • College students are among the most sleep-deprived populations, (National Institutes of Health).
  • To reset your body clock, wake up earlier (even 10–15 minutes helps) and at a quasi-regular time (including weekends).

What gets in the way

  • Variable course or work schedule
  • Weekend stuff
  • Dark or dim room
  • Peer influence

What you can do

  • Wake up around the same time each day.
  • Avoid 8 a.m. classes if possible.
  • On weekends, sleep only an hour later than usual. Waking at noon is very tough on your sleep schedule.
  • Let in morning sunlight, or get outdoors early. Bright light peps you up and resets your body clock.
  • Let your friends know how good you feel after enough sleep instead of how bad you feel from sleep deprivation.
  • Avoid all-nighters–a little sleep is better than none.

Quit the technology at least 30 minutes before bed

Here’s how technology deprives you of sleep:

  • The blue wavelength light emitted by computer, tablet, and phone screens suppresses your production of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone.
  • Tech activities are super-stimulating in themselves. This is why there are no lullabies about online poker, Instagram, and web surfing.
  • How to get horrible sleep:
    Text before bed and sleep with your cell phone close by. Studies prove it.
  • “Using a phone or a tablet, which is closer to your eyes than watching television, sends a stronger signal to your brain that says, ‘Hey, this is wake-up time.’”–Shelley Hershner, MD

What gets in the way

  • School work/assignments
  • Browsing the web
  • Cell phone
  • The existential void of social media
  • Reading on a tablet or eReader
  • Racing mind

What you can do

  • Work at your desk. Use your bed only for sleeping. No technology in bed.
  • Take a nap before studying for an exam.
  • Try an app that dims the screen, like f.lux.
  • Turn it to a silent setting.
  • Use Airplane Mode (your alarm still works).
  • Place your phone out of reach–so both you and it can recharge. Watching the clock causes “sleep stress”.
  • Pick up to four social media platforms and ditch the rest.
  • OMG you need to put down the phone and stop texting before (and during) bedtime LOL.
  • Set an alarm limiting your online social whirl to 20 minutes.
  • Listen to an audio book–nothing too exciting.
  • Read a feel-good paperback or magazine.
  • Keep paper by your bed for a brain dump.
  • If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up and try again later.

Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.

Caffeine. It’s in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and cocoa. It’s a stimulant. It blocks sleep-inducing chemicals. Here’s how it busts up your body clock:

  • That crash when it wears off
  • Your difficulty falling asleep
  • Your wake-ups during the night

What gets in the way

  • Pulling an all-nighter and other academic demands
  • Hanging out with friends after dinner
  • Athletics
  • Afternoon and evening jobs

What you can do

  • Organize, plan, and beat the deadline.
  • Get at least some sleep. One or two hours is far better than none.
  • Drink decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea.
  • Choose plain or naturally flavored water.
  • Eat an energy-boosting snack.
  • If coffee seems irresistible, fill half your cup with regular and top up with decaf.

Limit distractions and interruptions

Environmental stuff is likely hurting your sleep. Living in a residence hall on campus, or in an urban apartment, subjects you to noise and other distractions.

What gets in the way

  • Roommate(s)
  • Sleeping environment

What you can do

  • Agree on a time when friends need to leave your room or apartment.
  • Respect each other’s space and needs.
  • Set your electronic device to Silent.
  • Use a white noise machine or fan.
  • Use earplugs or an eye mask.
  • Keep room temperature in the 60s.
  • Hang blackout curtains.

Stay low-energy before bed

A gentle evening environment helps your body and mind wind down, easing you into sleep.

What gets in the way

  • Racing mind
  • Electric light
  • Exercise
  • Hunger and thirst

What you can do

  • Read or listen to a book (not digital, and not too exciting).
  • Take a bath or shower.
  • Keep paper next to your bed for a brain dump.
  • Deep breathing exercises.
  • Make room in your life for dimmer switches and red light bulbs.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, if it seems to keep you awake.
  • Try a light snack at night and/or herbal tea.

Distressed night owl

distressed night owlBedtime 2–4 a.m.

Short-term goal
Strategize on naps

Strategies

Wake up 9—11 a.m. (even on weekends)

To reset your body clock, wake up earlier (even 10—15 minutes) and at a quasi-regular time (including weekends).

  • “A student coming to me for insomnia said he went to bed at 8 a.m. That is not a normal sleep time for a young adult student. I recommended he get to bed at a more appropriate, regular time, and get off Facebook. Within two weeks he had a regular schedule and was much less sleepy during the day.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

What gets in the way

  • Weekend stuff
  • Dark or dim room
  • Peer influence

What you can do

  • On weekends, sleep only an hour longer than your weekday wake-up time.
  • Let in morning sunlight, or get outdoors early. Bright light peps you up and resets your body clock.
  • Let your friends now how good you feel after enough sleep instead of how bad you feel from sleep deprivation.
  • Avoid all-nighters–a little sleep is better than none.

Map your nap

Naps can improve sleep—or ruin it. Strategize.

  • If you’re sleepy during the day, squeezing in a 15–30 minute nap can improve mood, alertness, and performance. “In one study, a six-minute nap improved memorization by 11 percent.” –Shelley Hershner, MD
  • Warning: If you’re taking naps then lying awake at night, quit the naps.

What gets in the way

  • Not sleepy yet
  • Don’t have time
  • There’s never a place to nap when you need one

What you can do

  • Plan to nap before you get sleepy.
  • Don’t nap for longer than one hour. Set a timer or alarm.
  • Nap when needed, or schedule a nap at the same time each day.
  • Come on. Fifteen blissful minutes. You can do it.
  • Avoid naps after 3 p.m. unless you’re driving and need a break.
  • Organize a nap pod initiative (if you have the energy). Students at the University of Michigan installed nap pods in a library and are studying the effects of brief naps on memory and retention. Three in four students said they would use the pods.

Avoid early classes

Sign up for later classes whenever possible.

  • “I counsel a lot of my students on avoiding the 8 a.m. class. If you can have a 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. class, you will probably get more sleep.” —Shelley Hershner, MD
  • Of course, if you’re that rare morning lark, 8 a.m. classes are a great option.

What gets in the way

  • Varying course schedule
  • Early classes
  • Early-morning classes in lecture halls

What you can do

  • Maintain a regular wake-up time even if your class times vary.
  • Avoid 8 a.m. classes.
  • Adapt your bedtime routine the night before, for earlier sleep (see Common night owl strategies).
  • Walk to the venue—get the body-clock benefits of daylight and physical activity (including brain stimulation).
  • Sit in the front row.

Wrecked night owl

wrecked night owlBedtime 4–7 a.m.

Short-term goal
Move toward consistent wake-up time

Strategies

Get up by 11 a.m. (even on weekends)

Whatever your sleep pattern, it’s important to wake up at a reasonably consistent time each day. Sleep no later than 11 a.m.

  • “For a student who’s sleeping from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., wake-up time is a huge focus. They need to start waking up at 11 a.m.” —Shelley Hershner, MD
  • In a recent Student Health 101 survey, getting up at a reasonably consistent time each day was students’ top-rated sleep strategy.

What gets in the way

  • Society’s inconvenient schedule
  • Morning grogginess

What you can do

  • Accept that you’re a night owl.
  • Do your best to make a schedule that suits your needs (within reason).
  • Drink a glass of water when you wake up.
  • Get things ready the night before (e.g., clothes, breakfast/lunch, backpack).
  • Let in morning sunlight, or get outdoors early. Bright light peps you up and resets your body clock.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator, and walk to class with a little more vigor.

Avoid naps

Lying awake at night? If so, quit napping during the day. “If you have a hard time falling asleep at night, naps are not recommended.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

Most research supports you…

  • Using your bed only for sleeping or intimacy.
  • Eliminating even a short nap if you have trouble falling asleep at night. Consult a sleep specialist if you’re unsure whether naps are working for you.

What gets in the way

  • Sleepiness

What you can do

  • Avoid naps if you have a hard time falling asleep.
  • You need about 17 hours of wakefulness before you’ll feel sleepy again.

Make incremental changes

Learning and memory are the primary functions of sleep. Without sleep—and certain stages of sleep—learning doesn’t happen and GPAs can take a dive, studies show.

  • “I’ve seen a fair number of students who have failed because of sleep issues. Once they solved these, they were able to go back to school.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

What gets in the way

  • Planned changes are too drastic
  • Sedentary habits
  • Dim light in daytime

What you can do

  • Go to bed earlier in 15-minute increments over a two-week period.
  • Start on a weekday. Prepare for weekends, when you’re more likely to stay up later.
  • Use a light therapy alarm clock (light gradually increases before the alarm goes off).
  • Get some exercise each day—a little is better than none.
  • Take a short walk outside.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park your car or bike farther from your destination.
  • Get outdoors.
  • Use a light box (bright light therapy) indoors.

Seek medical help at the campus health center or from a sleep expert

A sleep specialist can help figure out what’s making sleep so difficult and how to address it.

  • “Extreme night owls probably have to see a physician. Their biology is so far off society’s schedule, they will need help to normalize.” —Shelley Hershner, MD
  • Most sleep disorders don’t disappear without treatment. Treatments can be: behavioral (e.g., waking at the same time every day), pharmacological (medication), or surgical.
  • In a 2005 survey, 75 percent of adults had at least one symptom of a sleep problem, and 10 percent of adults reported severe insomnia (National Sleep Foundation).

What gets in the way

  • Nocturnal schedule
  • Don’t know whether you have a sleep disorder

What you can do

  • Make an appointment to see a doctor as soon as you can.
  • See a sleep specialist, if needed.
  • Get treatment from a sleep specialist for the following conditions and symptoms:
    • Sleepwalking
    • Insomnia
    • Sleep-disordered breathing (e.g., sleep apnea)
    • Excessive daytime sleepiness
    • Restless leg syndrome

Common disruptions

Biology of young adults

Why is it a problem?

  • In late puberty the body secretes melatonin, the sleep hormone, later in the night. This developmental shift alters the sleep-wake cycle, so we feel more awake at night, fall asleep later, and wake up later.

Strategies

  • Get exposure to sunlight early. You’ll feel more alert, while helping to reset your body clock for earlier nights.
  • Quit technology at least 30 minutes before bed. The blue wavelength light emitted by computer, tablet, and phone screens suppresses your melatonin.
  • Try a light-dimming app, like f.lux. These apps gradually dim your computer screen.

All-nighters

Why is it a problem?

  • Sleep-deprived students perform worse but aren’t aware of it. If you thought you rocked that test but actually bombed it, this might be why.
  • Pulling an all-nighter gives you the driving performance of being legally drunk. Some states have laws against driving while drowsy. National and global disasters have been related to sleep deprivation, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.

Strategies 

  • A little sleep is better than none. Get as much as you can, even if it’s only one or two hours.
  • If you can manage four hours, that’s one full sleep cycle.
  • Manage your study schedule. To-do lists are your friends.
  • Buddy up with a friend in your class and make time for “study parties” throughout the semester. This will help you both stay on top of your workload.

Student life

Why is it a problem?
Kept awake by voices or music, doors closing, footsteps, vomiting, and the like? Late-night action on campus is a drag when you’re trying to sleep (or when you’re not trying to sleep, but should be?).

Strategies 

  • A little sleep is better than none. Get one or two hours.
  • If you can manage four hours, that’s one full sleep cycle.
  • Manage your study schedule. To-do lists are your friends.
  • Buddy up with a friend in your class and make time for “study parties” throughout the semester. This will help you both stay on top of your workload.

Energy drinks

Why is it a problem?

  • Caffeine’s effects last 5 ½ – 7 ½ hours. Consuming caffeine in the afternoon is likely to mess with your sleep.
  • Energy drinks are not subject to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. The caffeine content is not limited by regulations. The labeling obscures the amount of caffeine per serving.

Strategies 

  • Stop consuming caffeine by 3 p.m.
  • Try other ways to energize yourself, like breathing deeply, taking brisk walks, eating a crunchy snack (e.g., apples and carrots), or chewing mint gum.

Medication

Stimulants
Stimulants can make it harder to fall asleep. They can disrupt REM sleep, which is necessary for memory consolidation and creativity, and throw off your natural wake-sleep cycle.

Strategies

  • If you take a stimulant prescribed by your doctor, talk about how the dose and timing could affect your sleep.

SSRIs
Antidepressants categorized as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) increase serotonin (the feel-good chemical in the brain). However, they can alter other chemical processes in the brain, which may affect sleep.

Strategies

  • If you take SSRIs for depression and experience sleep difficulties, talk to your doctor. It might be possible to vary the dose, or use another medication, to reduce sleep disruption.

Alcohol or marijuana

Why is it a problem?

  • Alcohol and marijuana disrupt sleep, including REM sleep, which is necessary for memory consolidation and creativity.
  • “Alcohol makes you fall asleep faster, but in the second half of the night it causes restlessness and fragmented sleep.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

Strategies 

  • Do not drink to relax. The fitful night it causes will leave you tired the following day.
  • Be aware of the importance of avoiding marijuana within two hours of bedtime.

Health conditions

Circadian rhythm disorder
Continuous or occasional disruption of the internal body clock.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Neurological condition causing difficulty with focus and self-control.

Mood disorders
Severe changes in mood that interfere with daily life, e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder.

Insomnia
Inability to fall or stay asleep.

Sleep-disordered breathing
Umbrella term for any disruption to the upper respiratory system (nose and mouth) breathing, resulting in disrupted sleep.

Narcolepsy

Neurological condition causing chronic disruption of the sleep-wake cycle, including suddenly falling asleep during normal daily activities.

Hypersomnia

Condition characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and extended sleep at night.

Restless Leg Syndrome
Overwhelming discomfort in the legs or limbs at night, temporarily relieved by movement, disrupting sleep.



Impact

Low mood

Depression & anxiety

Irritability and mood disorders including anxiety, mental distress, and depression

Risk factors include:

  • Bedtime after 2 a.m.
  • Sleep debt: Each night of shortened sleep adds to your total “sleep debt.” The more sleep indebted you are, the less likely that you will recognize it.

Poor performance

including low grades and unsafe driving
Sleep is required for memory consolidation and performance on academic and other tasks.

  • “Certain types of learning depend on certain types of sleep.” —Shelley Hershner, MD
  • Nine or more hours of sleep a night, and earlier wake-up times, are associated with higher GPAs, studies show.
  • Six or fewer hours of sleep a night, and later wake-up times, are associated with lower GPAs, studies show.
  • High performance is more closely linked to consistent sleep and wake times than to the actual number of hours slept.
  • Loss of sleep reduces reaction time. Drivers aged 16–29 are the age group most likely to be involved in car crashes caused by falling asleep at the wheel.
  • “Pulling an all-nighter gives you the driving performance of being legally drunk. In some states there are laws against driving drowsy.” —Shelley Hershner, MD

Weight gain or illness

Sleep has an important role in weight maintenance and immunity to some illnesses, research suggests.

  • The hormones that regulate your appetite, leptin and ghrelin, are affected by loss of sleep.
  • Less sleep is associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI).
  • Lack of sleep affects your immune system and might increase your vulnerability to infection. In a study of young adults, those who slept seven hours or less were nearly three times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept eight or more hours.
  • Students who reported up to six hours of sleep were twice as likely to rate their health “poor” than were students who slept for seven or eight hours.


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Emily Oppenheimer, MS, is passionate about using creative communication to improve health outcomes. She is program coordinator at Bronx Health REACH at the Institute for Family Health, New York.