university guide 2018

How to Sleep Properly at University

We asked several specialists how to get through uni on a minimal amount of sleep.
September 25, 2018, 8:30am
Illustration: Elzeline Kooy

To say university students are bad at sleeping is a fairly wild understatement. Part of the traditional university experience is regularly staying up until the first commuters start buying their coffees, and subsequently being manically tired throughout the entirety of all your next day's lectures.

Research has consistently shown that poor, irregular sleep can have a considerably negative effect on both a person's physical and mental health – but it is, of course, almost impossible to convince undergrads to replace a life of partying and last-minute all-night revision binges for a well formulated sleep regimen. Then again, perhaps a temporarily unhealthy existence is one of life's crucial building blocks, no matter what the consequences might be.


If that's true, maybe these are the questions we should be asking: How do you get through uni on a minimal amount of sleep? Does taking a nap in class actually pay off? And can you organise your tiny flat in a way that promotes a good night's rest?

To find out, I spoke with a number of sleep specialists, including Suzanne Booij, a neurologist at the Canisius-Wilhelmina Hospital in the Dutch city of Nijmegen. "First of all, it's important to emphasise that most young people in their first year of uni definitely need around nine hours of sleep a night," she tells me, adding that young people often become night owls around puberty, which could mean that you're better off saving your studying for later in the day. "For the most part, they go to bed late and get up later, too. Biologically, this means that students are usually more productive in the evening. They are able to concentrate better during those times, and are more active in myriad ways."

Marcel Smits, a neurologist at the Gelderland Valley hospital, agrees with Booij. "The natural sleeping phase of students – as well as teenagers going through puberty – is pushed back later into the evening."

Practically speaking, this means that students need to take their later bedtime into consideration when planning their next day's activities, which should, in the long run, help you establish regular routines that allow you to function at your most efficient. "Going to bed late doesn't have to be a big issue, but creates some regularity," Booij explains. "Don't keep switching between heading to bed at 2AM one night, then 9.30PM the next."


If you're still struggling to get out of bed in the morning, Smits says, the best antidote is to work some daylight travel into your routine. "So take your bike, the bus or walk to class, and avoid the subway," he explains.

Crucial to your new, healthier lifestyle is eating at regular hours and limiting snacking between meals. "We are creatures of habit," Booij explains, "and if you eat every day at the same time, you will get hungry around those times as well." Devouring a fried snack right before bed isn't going to help much. "Your body is still processing that portion of fries with mayonnaise, and you won't sleep well if your digestive system is still active."

Sometimes, eating late is a necessary evil, and in those cases it's important to limit the amount of food you consume, Booij says.

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Next – and this might seem obvious – the amount of drugs and alcohol you consume can also have a big impact on the quality of your shut-eye. "Alcohol is a great way to induce sleep, but doesn't help you to stay asleep," explains Smits.

"That's why some people like a nightcap," Booij confirms. "In the nights that follow an evening of heavy drinking, you'll experience less REM sleep and sleep less deeply, which means you won't feel rested the next day."

Drastically changing how much you drink is also not the way to go, as your body may have adjusted to your new habit. "If a student drinks six beers every night," Smits explains, "it's not a good idea to suddenly stop drinking completely the night before a test, because they will have more difficulty falling asleep."

Remembering my own university years, I ask Smits about skipping out on sleep altogether in favour of energy drinks, just to hit a deadline. "Staying awake for a night isn't so terrible," he says, reassuringly. "But you should look at it as if it's a one-off, extraordinary accomplishment by an athlete, and don't make a habit out of it. And I'm sure you saw this coming: on the nights leading up to a big deadline, it's simply a good idea to get to bed early."

When I ask Smits if taking a quick nap in class could be beneficial, he confirms that it can be –though, he adds, a desire for a power nap usually points to an "unhealthy sleep pattern and lifestyle". Booij agrees: "We've seen that a power nap can help a person catch up on deep sleep," she explains. "If you're talking about people with a normal, regular sleep rhythm, a ten to 15 minute power nap is enough. The sleep deprived among us can often nap for 30 to 45 minutes."


Also, remember to finish up any excessive mental or physical activity two hours before you fall asleep. "The transition between being very active and much less active takes time," Smits says. "You should plan your activities mindfully, and refrain from finishing everything at the last possible moment."

It's more than likely your university accommodation will be disgusting, but that shouldn't stop you from getting a good night's sleep. "Make sure you have a good mattress, curtains that block out daylight, and avoid being woken up by any sounds in the night," says Smits. "Our biological clock mainly responds to light and dark, so getting a good night's sleep also depends on turning off your laptop, your TV and your phone. The screens on these devices emit blue light, and this type of light tells your brain that it's daytime, and so it's time to get up."

Finally, how does a sleepover at someone else's place affect your sleep quality? "Many people have to get used to new sounds and different lighting when they sleep in a new environment, which makes it harder to fall asleep," says Booij. "The left side of your brain will be more active, which causes you to be more on guard." So if you have an important exam in the morning, and absolutely insist on doing the stupid thing – taking the party home – make sure you end up at your own place.

If you're truly committed to establishing an effective sleep regimen at uni, but are worried it will get in the way of making the most of your newfound freedom, Booij has some good news: "I wouldn't tell anyone that they should stop going out or quit drinking alcohol. Just do everything in moderation."

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.