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College students suffer from sleep debt


University of Mary Washington freshman Meg Schoemer is the oldest of nine children in her family, so she is accustomed to sleeping through noise. Yet Schoemer said she finds  it difficult to sleep in her dorm, where someone always seems to be closing a door, listening to music or carrying on a conversation.

This struggle, along with classwork and other distractions, means Schoemer  gets only 6 hours of sleep many nights—much less than what sleep experts say people her age need.

The National Sleep Foundation says young adults need eight hours of sleep to function properly. But college students, like Schoemer, rarely meet this  requirement.

In fact, many students find it impossible to consistently follow the foundation’s guidelines for a good night’s sleep.

“The noises in the dorms are different,” said Schoemer, who has one roommate and two suite mates. “It’s rare for me to sleep through the night without waking up a few times.  It’s also difficult to fall asleep.”

Part of the problem stems from finding it difficult “to sleep well away from home,” she said.

“And it’s even harder when I’m constantly hearing doors open and close down the hall,” Schoemer said.

In addition to being bothered by noise, Schoemer said schoolwork also keeps her up. The earliest  she goes to bed is 12:15 a.m., she said. During the school week, she wakes up between 7 and 8:15 a.m.

Late nights and early mornings simply don’t add up to enough sleep to keep a person her age energized and at her best, sleep experts say.

A poor sleeping schedule can affect a student’s health, said Dr. Maha Alattar, a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine expert in Fredericksburg.  Too little sleep can lead to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, impaired glucose tolerance, depression, headaches, a lower immune system and an increase in appetite that could lead to obesity, she said.

The Journal of Adolescent Health also has reported a lower immune system in poor sleepers. A 2009 study showed that 12 percent of poorly sleeping students had three or more missed classes  in the last month because of illness.  Of good-quality sleepers, 4 percent reported a missed class in the past month due to illness.

Alattar said sleep deprivation also can negatively affect a student’s concentration levels.

“If you want to get an A, you have to get a good night’s sleep,” Alattar said.  “If I had known then what I know now, I would have gotten higher grades in college.”

A quarter of college students say they get less than 6 hours of sleep a night, according  to  Journal of Adolescent Health.

Many agreed with Schoemer that dorms can be a tough place to get a good night’s sleep. In the  study, 38 percent of college students reported poor quality sleep, and about a third of students cited excess noise as the No. 1 obstacle to falling asleep.


Suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, students often look for other solutions to gain energy throughout the day. Many find naps to be a necessary “pick-me-up” to regain lost sleeping time.

Upma Kapoor, a sophomore at UMW who has three roommates, finds naps essential to get through the day. Schoemer also values a good nap, but she said she tries to limit them to 20 or 30 minutes each.

“If I nap for a longer period, it can be hard to get back to work,” Schoemer said.

Sleep experts say naps are most effective when taken early in the day for a short period of time.  Alattar said naps should not be taken after 3 p.m. and should not exceed 45 minutes.

“If you need to nap for three hours or nap multiple times a day, something is wrong,” Alattar said. “And for college students, most often it means you are not getting enough sleep.”

No amount of caffeine can replace sleep, experts say. But many students turn to it to feel energized when they are running short on sleep. UMW senior Jay Hess says  he isn’t a big caffeine drinker, but when he does drink it, it is always in the evening while studying.

 Although caffeine early in the day can be beneficial, caffeine close to bedtime can be detrimental to a good night’s sleep, Alattar said.  She also cautions students that caffeine should come from coffee or tea and not from sodas.

“Caffeine is good early in the day, particularly if you have a test,” she said. “But in young people, it can linger in the body for five hours, so it should not be consumed after 3 o’clock because it can make your sleep lighter.”


Not surprisingly, some students link busy times in the semester, such as mid-term exams and finals, to poor sleeping schedules. Hess said he finds himself sleeping less when he has multiple assignments due in a short period of time.

Some students try to prevent sleepiness by scheduling classes later in the day.

Kapoor said she was able to schedule classes this semester during times when she is most attentive.

“This is the first time I am not taking an 8 a.m. or a night class since I came to college,” she said. “Honestly, it is the best thing I have done for my assignments.  I am more motivated and alert because I’m awake.”

When students don’t have a class to get up for the next day, they acknowledge staying up later at night, especially on weekends.

Despite the inclination to alter sleep schedules on weekends, experts encourage students to maintain the same bedtime and waking time every day.

“If you stay up until 4 in the morning and sleep until noon, you can affect your sleeping schedule for an entire week,” Alattar said.  “It is a very disruptive schedule, and your body is like a factory.  It replaces old cells at night.  You cannot beat nature.  It just isn’t worth it.”

A guide to how much sleep people need, by age, can be found online at:

Tips for getting sleep in a noisy dorm


Dr. Maha Alattar and the National Sleep Foundation shared these tips for getting good sleep:

  • Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m. Also avoid nicotine and alcohol, which can interfere with sleep.
  • Don’t nap for more than 45 minutes, or after 3 p.m.
  • Establish a consistent sleep and wake schedule, and stick close to it on the weekends.
  • Don’t eat, drink or exercise within a few hours of bedtime.
  • Shut off electronics well before bedtime. Computers   and other devices emit light that inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin, which helps us sleep.
  • Try wearing ear plugs if your sleep environment is noisy.




Frances Womble:  540/374-5444