Student in hoodie sleeps on top of open textbook at library desk

Sweet Dreams: 6 Questions About Sleep for College Students

March 05, 2024 Written by Jessica Downey | Photo taken from Pexels

Every year, the National Sleep Foundation hosts Sleep Awareness Week to emphasize the importance of healthy sleeping habits and how it impacts your physical and mental wellbeing. This year, Sleep Awareness Week is March 10–16. This time of year, getting sleep is especially important—midterms, Spring Break and St. Patrick's Day partying are all factors that could throw off your usual sleep patterns.

The Center for Counseling and Student Development (CCSD) Assistant Director of Training Brad Wolgast is a licensed psychologist and board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist and diplomate. Dr. Wolgast is the founder of the Center for Healthy Sleep, LLC which uses cognitive behavioral therapy to treat insomnia and other sleep-related disorders. 

We asked Dr. Wolgast six questions about sleep—how much you should get, the obstacles in the way of a good night’s sleep and what you can do right now to catch more Z’s. Read his answers below!


Q: How long should students be sleeping?

A: The recommended number of hours of sleep for young adults between the ages of about 14 and 25 surprises most college students. In order to be functioning at their highest, young adults should be getting 9.25 hours per night. 

Very few college students will get this much sleep regularly. Most college students in the United States receive about 6.25 hours or 6.5  hours per night of sleep, which is almost one-third less than recommended for their age group. While there is no specific data on University of Delaware students' sleep, one non-scientific survey from 2018 found that college students in Delaware reported an average of 6.1 hours per night of sleep. 

I strongly encourage college students to aim for 7.5 to eight hours per night with an additional hour of sleeping in on the weekends.


Q: Why aren’t students sleeping enough?

A: This is a question that has hundreds of answers. The most common, and I think correct, answers have to do with the brilliant engagement of our screens as well as the sense that over-scheduling is the same as high functioning. Most people today rarely spend five minutes without looking at a screen and the information they get from that screen is generally very interesting or engaging. When I’m talking to students who aren’t sleeping well, I often find that the first time of the day when they stop doing things or looking at screens is when they turn out the light to try and sleep. This leads to the common experience of having a racing mind at the time you’re trying to fall asleep. 

In addition, college students today drink caffeine at rates not seen in the past and they do so in amounts that are extreme and to a degree that your parents or grandparents would have considered worrisome at your age.


Q: What is a circadian rhythm and how does it impact sleep?

A: Your circadian rhythms are what your body uses to manage its functions throughout the course of a 24-hour day. Circadian is from the Latin words ‘circa,’ meaning ‘about,’  and ‘dia,’ meaning ‘day.’ There are hundreds of circadian systems in each of us that help regulate things like hunger, sleep, mental acuity, when we need to urinate and so on. 

One of the strongest means for maintaining circadian rhythms is sunlight. One hundred years ago, most adult humans spent many hours outdoors daily; today, most adult humans get an hour or fewer per day. This weakens our circadian systems by diminishing our connection to sunlight and the positive impact it has on our ability to regulate our day, our time to sleep and so on. 

When a person’s circadian rhythm is strong, things like waking up, falling asleep, feeling hungry and feeling satiated are all easier. Once those things are easier, the person’s overall health, mental health and body weight are all easier to maintain. Healthy sleep also boosts the immune system.


Q: How can students improve their circadian rhythm?

A: The good news about improving your circadian rhythm is that you get new chances every day. If your circadian rhythm is off, consider resetting it as a process similar to jet lag from traveling. Within a week, you can reset your circadian rhythm by as much as six or seven hours. 

The best advice for resetting your circadian rhythms is to wake up at a relatively consistent time every day of the week seven days a week. Once you’re up, getting out of bed and into some sunlight, or near a window where there is outdoor light, is the second most important thing that you can do. Third, spend some time outside during the day; it’s especially helpful for resetting your circadian rhythms.

Things you should avoid in order to improve your circadian rhythm are consuming caffeine after lunch, exercising within three or four hours of bedtime and eating meals at irregular hours, especially close to bedtime.

Other things that get in the way of a healthy circadian rhythm are substances. Alcohol and marijuana diminish your body's ability to maintain circadian rhythms. Use these minimally or stop using long before bedtime to improve your rhythm. 


Q: How does lack of sleep negatively impact mental health?

A: For decades, researchers have been aware that there is a strong correlation between suicidal thoughts and sleep problems. It appears that nearly any challenges with sleep from insomnia to disrupted sleep to difficulty with sleeping in general, all correlate to a higher likelihood of experiencing thoughts about suicide. In addition, people who experience chronic nightmares are also known to be much more likely to experience thoughts of suicide. The cause and effects of this correlation is unclear, but it’s something that has my attention, and has me working to train clinicians at counseling centers across the country to ask more about sleep issues with their clients.

Students who struggle with maintaining good mental health are always encouraged to pay attention to their sleep. Getting eight hours of sleep per night will boost your mental and physical health. Research has shown consistently that depressed mood and increased anxiety both diminish with a sufficient amount of sleep. This may not be enough to cure depression or an anxiety disorder, but for most students experiencing some depression or anxious symptoms, it can often be enough to relieve their experience so that they can get back to feeling like themselves.


Q: How can students get 1:1 help with their sleep or lack thereof?

A: Sleep is something we all do every day and making sleep a priority will usually help most people experience better sleep, or more sleep relatively quickly. 

If a student is experiencing a problem with sleep that they are having problem-solving on their own, they can seek out the services at CCSD. The staff here are knowledgeable and capable of helping students improve their sleep, and there is available treatment for insomnia and nightmare disorder, as well as assessment for other sleep disorders. Our office is at 201 Warner Hall at the south end of the Green and we’re open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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