You’re familiar with the eight-hour rule. Actually getting eight full hours of shut-eye, however? It’s tricky to prioritize sleep when you’re juggling things like a crazy class schedule, work, and a social life.
Getting more sleep, however, can actually help make all those things easier to manage. Take the age-old dilemma: Should you study for a few more hours before your final or rest up before the test? Sleep has major brain benefits, including helping to improve your memory. So trading the flash cards for your pillow might actually do more to boost your grade.
Here’s the case in favor of getting more zzzs:
Sleeping away sickness
You’re not dreaming—you really will feel an amazing difference in your body when you let it reenergize. Researchers consistently find that getting insufficient sleep prevents the immune system from functioning at its best. A 2012 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found a significant difference in immune response in those who slept four to six hours compared to those who slept seven to nine hours.
Getting consistent sleep is key. In a 2017 study among twins, researchers found that “chronic short sleep,” defined as regularly getting less than seven hours, shuts down certain immune responses. In other words, if you’re exposed to a virus when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to get sick than if you were doing more slumbering.
“When I get enough sleep, I almost never get sick,” says Rachael R., a student at Winona State University in Minnesota. “I [recently] made it a priority to get enough sleep and I didn’t get sick once, which is amazing because I’m a nursing major who spends a lot of time in the hospital around sick people.”
Sleep and the scale
A lack of sleep can also affect your endocrine system, which is responsible for managing your hormones—and fluctuations in your hormones are associated with increased weight gain, says Dr. Michel Bornemann, a sleep medicine specialist and former codirector of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis.
The part of your brain that controls these functions—the hypothalamus—needs sleep for regulation and to keep your weight in check. When you haven’t gotten much sleep, you’re also more likely to crave less nutritious foods that will provide a quick shot of energy, such as sugary snacks. Plus, your body can’t fully reap the benefits of regular physical activity if you’re not getting consistent, deep sleep. In other words, sleep is key when it comes to helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Sleep and stress
This might come as no surprise, but sleep has a major impact on our mood (just think about all the times you’ve gone through the day grumpy because you didn’t get enough shut-eye).
“Before school, I was getting four to six hours [of sleep] a night, working six days a week, full and part time. I was always tired and sluggish, and felt negative about most things,” says Jessica M., a second-year student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. “Now that I’m in school and don’t go to work at 7 a.m. every morning and then another job after, I feel a lot better and more positive. It has actually improved my mental health.”
Specifically, sleep deprivation is linked to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol—a huge reason we feel out of whack when we don’t get enough shut-eye. That can turn into a vicious cycle. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, more than a third of young folks reported stress was keeping them up at night.
“When I get sufficient sleep, I feel a lot better mentally, which means I stress out a lot less,” says Alfonso F., a third-year student at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Bad sleep = bad focus
Getting more sleep can help you focus better in class so you can spend less time reviewing the material later in the library. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, respondents stated that they feel groggy and sluggish, and also have difficulty concentrating, when they don’t get sufficient sleep.
“After a bad night’s sleep, I’ll notice I’m a little more stressed and irritable, maybe I just can’t quite think straight, and easy things get confusing for no reason,” says Megan D., a third-year student at the University of Maine. “After a good night’s sleep, however, I’m happier, relaxed, and really ambitious to get as much done as I can as soon as possible.”
If you find yourself nodding off at your desk (it happens to the best of us), you’re obviously exhausted, but you might not realize how powerful your fatigue really is. “Acute sleep deprivation is often associated with episodes of ‘microsleep,’ or brief, uncontrollable periods of sleep lasting three to six seconds. [They can] intrude upon wake at inopportune times, such as during a lecture,” explains Dr. Bornemann.
It can also be more serious—Dr. Bornemann points out that research shows driving after pulling an all-nighter is “very similar to the impairment experienced when driving while intoxicated with alcohol.”
Making sleep a priority
Even when you’re totally on board with the importance of sleep, getting enough is easier said than done. Follow these tips to score more sleep.
Reevaluate your to-do list.
If you can prioritize what needs to be done immediately and what can wait, you’ll get a bit more sleep. For example, do you need to call your best friend back home after you study, or can you save the call for your walk to class tomorrow? “I know that my body wants to go to sleep between midnight and 2 a.m.,” says Nicki K., a student at Northwestern University in Illinois. “If something isn’t done by then, it’s not usually worth doing.”
Be mindful of time wasters during the day.
Track how much time you spend on social media for a day, including every Twitter break before class and every minute you spend on Snapchat and Instagram. It adds up. Think about how else you could use mindless scrolling time to be more productive during the day—and get more shut-eye at night.
Don’t check electronics after going to bed.
The blue light from your screen interferes with your body’s internal sleep clock, keeping you from drifting off. Plug your phone in to charge on the opposite side of your room to resist the temptation.
Limit caffeine after 2 p.m.
“This is killer for some students, but limiting caffeine legitimately helped me. It’s sometimes frustrating not being able to have a glass of Coke with dinner, but I just had to take the time to build new habits,” says Elliece R., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
Get in the sleep zone or create a sleep routine.
Take a relaxing shower before bed, practice pre-snooze meditation, or read until you drift off. Try a meditation app like Calm.
Michel Bornemann, MD, lead investigator, Sleep Forensics Associates and physician at Olmsted Medical Center, Rochester, Minnesota.
American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress and sleep. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep.aspx
Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Waking up to sleep’s role in weight control. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/sleep-and- obesity/
Leproult, R., Copinschi, G., Buxton, O., & Van Cauter, E. (1997). Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep, 20(10), 865–870. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/20/10/865/2725962
National Sleep Foundation. (2012, November 9). Young people more likely to drive drowsy. Retrieved from https://drowsydriving.org/2012/11/young-people-more-likely-to-drive-drowsy/
Watson, N. F., Buchwald, D., Delrow, J. J., Altemeier, W. A., et al. (2017). Transcriptional signatures of sleep duration discordance in monozygotic twins. Sleep, 40(1). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsw019
Wright Jr., K. P., Drake, A. L., Frey, D. J., Fleshner, M., et al. (2015). Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol, inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 47, 24–34.