To Sleep or Not to Sleep?

Ernest Hemingway once said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” Whether you have it all together during the day, or feel more like Hemingway, we all benefit from healthy sleep habits. Sleep promotes cognition and memory, facilitates learning, recharges our mental and physical batteries, and generally helps us make the most out of our days. With plentiful sleep we improve our mental and psychical health, reduce stress, and maintain regularity that is critical to healthy daily functioning.

With the busy schedules of college students, often times sleep is the first thing to go when trying to squeeze in all of the academic, social, and extracurricular activities that are often part college. This page is intended to show why it is important to maintain healthy sleep habits, and provide some tips and tricks on how to do it! After all, “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” – Homer, the Odyssey


Why is sleep important? 

Sleep plays a critical role in helping our bodies and our minds recover and rejuvenate. As a result, sleep contributes to improvements in learning and promotes regulatory functions such as emotional and behavioral control that are important for each and every day. Some examples of physiological and behavioral benefits of sleep include:

  • Potential restoration of neural connections.
  • Helps improve learning by encoding and consolidating memories
  • Production of growth hormones during sleep
  • Minimized brain activity may assist in optimal activity of emotional control, decision making, and social interaction when awake

How much sleep do we need?

The optimal amount of sleep for each person may vary, but generally research suggests 7-10 hours per night for college-aged populations.


How much sleep are college students getting?

As you might guess, most college students do not get the recommended amount of sleep necessary to maximize the benefits gained by adequate sleep (70% report insufficient sleep). This is particularly important for college students because sufficient sleep has been linked to increases in GPA!


What if I’m not getting enough sleep?

Because sleep plays such a crucial role in human functioning, lack of sleep can lead to a number of consequences affecting behavior, memory, emotions and learning when we are awake.

  • Inattention, irritability, hyperactivity, poor impulse control and difficulty multi-tasking.
    • Impaired memory
    • Impaired math calculation skills

In extreme cases, sleep deprivation can even result in hallucinations and mood swings.

  • Extreme sleep deprivation:
    • Hallucinations
    • Mood swings

When we do not get the sleep we need, our body does not forget; we go into sleep debt. Our bodies continue to pay back this debt by trying to get sleep whenever possible, which can result in micro-sleeps.

  • Inadvertent sleeping during the day (even in class or when studying!) that can last just seconds. Micro sleeps impede concentration and negatively impact retention of information.

Additionally, individuals often use caffeine or others stimulants to stay awake. This not only puts them at risk for the consequences of poor sleep, but also the negative health effects of increased stimulant consumption.


How do you know if you need more sleep?

There are some key tips that you can use to help identify if you are getting enough sleep. IF you notice these symptoms, you may need to give yourself more sleep to pay back you sleep debt.

  • If you are feeling drowsy during the day
  • If you easily fall asleep after 5 mins
  • Presence of micro-sleeps

What kinds of sleep are there?

There are two types of sleep (REM, and non-REM), which make up 5 different stages. As you sleep, you move through each stage progressively until you complete the cycle (typically 90-110 minutes per cycle). Completing the sleep cycle allows you to gain the benefits of healthy sleep. When we do not move through each stage, or get stuck in the earlier stages, we are more likely to have poor sleep.

  • NREM (non-rapid eye movement)
    • Stages 1 -4
      • Stages I & II
        • Easily awakened
        • Sudden muscle contractions (jolting yourself awake), known as hypnic myoclonia
      • Stages III & IV
        • Deep sleep
        • May present as disoriented or groggy if awakened during these stages
      • REM (rapid eye movement)
        • Stage 5
          • Dreaming occurs
          • Physiological changes
            • Eyes move rapidly back and forth.
            • Irregular heart rate and breathing
            • Body temperature changes to minimize sweating when hot, or shivering when cold
            • Nerve impulses to muscles below the neck are blocked

The natural body cycle

We all have natural body clocks that tell us when we should sleep and when we should be awake. This biocycle is known as the circadian rhythm, and it works on a 24-hour cycle. Light plays a major role in this cycle as certain hormones are released or inhibited in the presence and absence of light to either help us rise as stay alert, or help us feel drowsy to fall asleep.

  • You build an urge to sleep each hour you are awake, and reaches its peak in the evening when most people fall asleep. There is also a small peak mid-day, which may help explain afternoon drowsiness.
  • Hormones contributing to sleep
    • Melatonin
      • Naturally released when it is dark.
      • Peaks in the evening.
      • Inhibited when exposed to light.
      • Signals body that its time for sleep, and contributes to you feeling sleep.
    • Cortisol
      • Naturally released when you awake and helps you wake up and stay alert

What types of things effect falling and staying sleep?

Sleep can be affected by number of things including how we treat our bodies, what we put in our bodies, and how we interact with our environment.

  • Diet pills
  • Decongestant stimulants
  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine withdrawal for smokers
  • Alcohol – though it helps fall asleep because it is a depressant, it reduces stages II, IV, and REM, which are the restorative sleep stages

The DO’s and DON’Ts to optimize your sleep

Given what we know about sleep, there are a number of things you can do, and avoid, to improve your sleep cycle. This list is not exhaustive, but includes many suggesting that help in falling and staying asleep so you can get the 7-9 hours your body and mind need.

  • The DOs
    • Allow yourself enough time to sleep
    • Gradual set earlier bedtimes when attempting to adjust your sleep cycle.
    • Expose yourself to bright light in the morning to help wake up
    • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet and help fall asleep
    • Exercise regularly, but not right before bed
    • Maintain a regular sleep routine, on weekdays and weekends
    • Relax yourself as much as possible before bed. This can include taking a warm bath, meditating, or reading something that is not cognitively taxing.
  • The DON’Ts
    • Use alcohol to help fall asleep. While this may help fall asleep, you may be more likely to have difficulty staying asleep as alcohol can disrupt the natural cycle of sleep.
    • Eat large meals right before bed
    • Engage in rigorous exercise before bed
    • Use nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant and daytime use can inhibit sleep.
    • Drink caffeine within 8hrs of your intended bedtime
    • Expose yourself to bright lights before going to bed
      • Try brushing you teeth in a dimly lit room as opposed to the brightly lit bathroom.
    • Use electronic devices that give off light such as TV, computer, phones, etc. before bed. Even this light inhibits the secretion of melatonin making it more difficult to fall asleep.
DO DON’T
Allow yourself enough time to sleep Expose yourself to bright lights before going to bed
Gradual set earlier bedtimes when attempting to adjust your sleep cycle. Try brushing you teeth in a dimly lit room as opposed to the brightly lit bathroom.
Expose yourself to bright light in the morning to help wake up Drink caffeine within 8hrs of your intended bedtime
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet and help fall asleep Use nicotine. Nicotine is a stimulant and daytime use can inhibit sleep.
Exercise regularly, but not right before bed Engage in rigorous exercise before bed
Relax yourself as much as possible before bed. This can include taking a warm bath, meditating, or reading something that is not cognitively taxing. Use alcohol to help fall asleep. While this may help fall asleep, you may be more likely to have difficulty staying asleep as alcohol can disrupt the natural cycle of sleep.
Maintain a regular sleep routine, on weekdays and weekends Eat large meals right before bed
Use electronic devices that give off light such as TV, computer, phones, etc. before bed. Even this light inhibits the secretion of melatonin making it more difficulty to fall asleep.

Some sleep resources and the UNC Sleep Disorder Clinics:

Here are some helpful resources you can use to help with your sleeping needs.

UNC Wellness Center

Sleep relaxation exercises 

If your sleep difficulties are significantly affecting your daily functioning, or if you believe you may have a sleep disorder, speak with your physician or make an appointment with one of UNC’s Sleep Disorder Clinics for further resources and evaluation.

UNC Sleep Disorder Clinics


Download PDF: Sleeping to Succeed

REMEMBER: The UNC Learning Center is a great resource! Both Peer Tutoring and Academic Coaching can help you create a balanced approach to succeeding at Carolina. Our friendly staff is ready to help – drop by or make an appointment!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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