Ask the doc: “How can I stay awake in class or while studying?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes Nodding off in class or while studying could be a sign of sleep debt. Along with getting more sleep, these tricks can help you stay awake.

Upgrade your sleep: Simple bedroom solutions

Reading Time: 9 minutes From decor, to temperature, to white noise, fellow students offer their tips on how to make your bedroom a sleep-happy space.

Drained?: How to sync your sleep & life

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Have you ever struggled to stay awake in your 9 a.m. class, and wondered why? Let’s say you slept for six hours—below the recommended number, but you might think it would be enough to keep you functioning until your afternoon emergency nap.

Not necessarily. How many hours you sleep matters, of course—a lot. But that’s not the only way sleep influences your functioning the next day (like being able to pick up where you left off in pre-calc, put in a half-decent performance at volleyball, and remember to wish your dad a happy birthday).

When you sleep may influence your academic performance even more than sleep duration does, research suggests. That’s because sleep isn’t just one experience affecting your body and brain; it’s a sequence of experiences that meet various physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. Combined, these stages are known as the sleep cycle. When you disrupt your sleep cycle, you’ll feel it, even if you’re getting the “right” total number of hours. Sleeping three hours at night and four in the afternoon, for example, is not equivalent to sleeping seven hours consecutively. (Also: The recommended number of hours for young adults is 8–9 ¼, according to the National Sleep Foundation.)

Read a student story

“Greg,” a second-year undergraduate at American University, DC, went to his health center because he couldn’t get to sleep at night. Greg told Dr. Reitman, the medical director, that he fell asleep every night around 3 a.m. and got up at 8 a.m. for his
9 a.m. class. He drank coffee to stay awake and took a 2–3 hour nap after lunch. On weekends, he stayed out with his friends until 3 a.m. then slept until 1 p.m.

Diagnosis: Greg had a classic case of delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS). DSPS is seen in 17 percent of college students, and is characterized by a disconnect between sleep habits and societal demands, like getting up for school or work (“social jet lag”). Greg was not getting enough deep restorative sleep or REM sleep to function properly during the day.

“Greg didn’t have an underlying sleep disorder. He had poor sleep habits. If you take a nap for three hours a day, you are not going to be tired at 11 p.m. And with only five hours of sleep at night, you are interfering with the sleep cycle,” says Dr. Reitman. Even after adding three hours in the afternoon, Greg will likely miss out on deep sleep and REM sleep.

Treatment: Here’s what Dr. Reitman recommended for Greg:

  • Avoid napping for longer than 30 minutes and/or late in the day.
  • Choose a specific sleep time and wake time and stick to it seven days a week (with 60 minutes leeway on the weekends for both sleep and wake time).
  • Limit computer use before bedtime.
  • Try melatonin, a dietary supplement, about two hours before sleep time; melatonin is a short-term sleep aid that may help reset the sleep cycle.

Are you sleep-deprived?

The University of Michigan Sleep Medicine Department identifies five warning signs:

  • Do you fall asleep in class?
  • Are classes boring and not keeping you engaged?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Can you read or study for only a short time before your attention wanders?
  • Do you have a very hard time waking up in the morning?

Got sleep inertia?

We have all felt the pain of fragmented sleep after our night has been seriously interrupted. Our morning grogginess—also known as sleep inertia—is a liability. We cut ourselves shaving, we spill our coffee, we dump our adorable partner. Our memory, alertness, reaction time, and decision making are well below where we’d like them to be. Sleep inertia can last far longer than we might realize: two to four hours, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School. You’re likely to be less perceptive and attentive in class. You may struggle to understand why your male Spanish teacher will never be embarazada. (It’s because this means pregnant, not embarrassed.) You may be irritable and not much fun to be around.

How about social jet lag?

If your natural wake time is routinely out of sync with the time that society (e.g., your class schedule) tells you to get up, you are likely suffering from social jet lag. In a 2000 study in the Journal of American College Health, students with an irregular sleep pattern performed worse academically than their peers, even when they slept the same total number of hours.

“For college students, the worst impact of inadequate sleep is the hit to their memory and learning,” says Dr. Shelley Hershner, a sleep specialist and assistant professor of neurology, University of Michigan. In a 2014 national survey, more than half of college students reported significant daytime sleepiness, and two in three felt sleepiness hurt their academic performance (American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment). Sleep deprivation and disruption is among the top three causes of poor academic performance, along with stress and anxiety (which are also associated with disrupted sleep).

In studies, irregular sleep patterns, later bedtimes, and later wake-up times are associated with lower GPAs. Some evidence suggests that memory formation may be prompted by deep sleep (the third stage) and then consolidated by Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, helping to explain why we need those sequential stages. “If you disrupt the natural sleep cycle, you will pay for it, either through being tired, getting poor grades, or even depression,” says Dr. David Reitman, medical director of the student health center at American University, DC.

What does sleep disruption do to us?

Not so smart after all: Memories of what you learned and experienced yesterday are consolidated during REM sleep. Deep sleep may also be involved in this process. Disrupted sleep means disrupted learning.

Difficulty with weight management: Sleep disruption affects the hormones that regulate hunger as well as our level of physical activity. Recurrent sleep deprivation increases our desire for high-calorie foods and may make us more prone to weight gain, research suggests. A 2006 study found that each hour of social jet lag was associated with a 33 percent higher risk of obesity.

Infections: Ongoing sleep deprivation and disruption are associated with weakened immune function, potentially leaving us less able to fight off viruses like the common cold.

Temptation to drink and smoke: Social jet lag is a risk factor for more than academic failure; it can also lead to increased use of alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine, according to a 2006 study in Chronobiology International.

Accident-prone: Sleep-deprived drivers are less attentive, with slower reaction times and impaired judgment. In a 2010 study involving 1,039 undergraduates, one in six said they had fallen asleep while driving, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Sexual slump: Sleep-deprived men and women report lower libidos and less interest in sex. In a 2015 study of college students, well-slept women had more sex than did tired women, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine. In a 2011 study, ten male college students restricted their sleep to five hours a night for just one week, resulting in decreased testosterone; symptoms of testosterone deficiency include reduced libido, low energy, and difficulty concentrating.

Chronic disease and shortened life span: People who routinely get less than six hours of sleep a night are at increased risk of dying prematurely, according to a 2010 analysis of multiple studies in the journal Sleep. The less you sleep, the more likely you are to develop diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

How to fix your sleep

The number-one sleep complaint of students is being tired, says Dr. David Reitman, medical director of the student health center at American University, DC. “Although some students do have underlying sleep disorders, 85 percent of tiredness is caused by poor sleep habits: too much caffeine, napping during the day, using cell phones, or being online late at night. All of these can interrupt your sleep, but they are all correctable habits.”

The key to sleeping well is synchronizing your sleep and wakefulness with natural darkness and light. This way, you can avoid sleep inertia and social jetlag. Here’s how:

  1. Avoid gadget use in the hour before you go to bed: Tablets, cell phones, and laptops emit light on a blue wavelength that suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. In the evening, try a free light-dimming app that gradually dims your screen, like f.lux. If you can’t give up your tablet, make sure there’s no backlight. “Low instrumental music or white noise helps me fall asleep. There’s a great app called Dormio with many sound options,” says Laura Barr, a second-year undergraduate at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador.
  2. Try to get up the same time on the weekends as you do weekdays: Or at least keep your weekend lie-in to no more than an hour beyond your usual wake-up time. Waking up at a consistent time will help—a lot. “It’s easier to get up when you make plans with friends for morning activities (breakfast, gym, etc.),” says John Handal, a fourth-year undergraduate at Redeemer University College, Ontario.
  3. Get a hit of natural light first thing: Venturing outdoors in the morning helps regulates your body clock.
  4. Be physically active: For some people, exercising shortly before bedtime backfires; you may need to be active earlier to avoid sleep disruption.
  5. Nap strategically: Even brief naps can restore some memory function, according to the Journal of Sleep Research (2008). Up to 30 minutes is OK; longer or late naps will mess with your nights.
  6. Keep working on planning your assignments to avoid all-nighters: Even an hour or two of sleep is much better than nothing. Staying up all night is disruptive to your sleep cycle and learning—though you may not be aware of it. Students who stayed up all night performed worse on cognitive tasks, but figured their concentration and effort were just fine, according to a study in the Journal of American College Health.
  7. Avoid caffeinated drinks after 3 p.m.: Caffeine stimulates the brain and can cause insomnia, reducing your sleep duration and interfering with your sleep cycle.
  8. If you drink alcohol, keep it moderate; avoid cigarettes. Alcohol can help us get to sleep but reduces our deep sleep and REM sleep. Heavy smokers sleep lightly and don’t get enough REM sleep.
  9. Be cautious with sleep aids: Sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta, may put you to sleep a little sooner, but they don’t respect your sleep cycle. “They suppress REM sleep and also affect memory consolidation. I might give them to a student in crisis, but cognitive-behavior therapy has a 70–80 percent success rate for helping those who suffer from chronic insomnia and it does not interfere with the sleep cycle,” says Dr. Hershner. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety alert for Ambien in response to research showing that some dosages led to excessive drowsiness the next day.
Do sleep apps help?

In general, your cell phone is the enemy of your sleep; texts and SnapChat are just too tempting. But your phone can perhaps be redeemed through the strategic use of an app that tracks your sleep and gives you feedback on your habits. Sleep doctors are divided on how useful these apps are; see what works for you.

“Sleep apps are evolving. They are getting better all the time. What they measure is activities related to sleep, such as movement in bed and whether you are snoring. The rise of sleep apps shows me that people are more aware and concerned about their sleep, and that’s a good thing. And one day we will have sleep apps that will really measure sleep (by evaluating brain activity).”
—Dr. Nathaniel Watson, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM); associate professor of neurology at the University of Washington; and codirector of the UW Medicine Sleep Center

“My patients bring in their cell phones or recordings of them snoring. Many are anxious because the app tells them they have a sleep disorder, or are relieved because they don’t think they have sleep apnea because the app says they don’t snore. To me, the results are pretty meaningless for diagnosis. And there are confounding factors [that can contribute to misleading results] if the patient doesn’t sleep alone or there is ambient noise.”
—Dr. Steven Park, assistant professor at the Department of Otorhinolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; author of Sleep, Interrupted (Jodev Press, 2012)

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock wakes you when you’re in your lightest stage of sleep.

SleepBot tracks your sleep and offers alarms and auto-settings for improving it.

Some fitness trackers can provide information on how you’re sleeping; the most popular include Basis, Jawbone’s Up app, and Fitbit.

Sleep Cycle Graph

Stage 1
  • 5–10 minutes; 2–5% of sleep time
  • Light sleep; you may drift in and out and be awakened fairly easily
  • Your brain waves become smaller, slower, and somewhat irregular
  • You might experience sudden muscle contractions preceded by a sensation of falling
  • If you wake up now, you may not even know you had been asleep
Stage 2
  • 40–50% of sleep time
  • Your body temperature starts to decrease
  • Your heart rate begins to slow
  • Your brain produces bursts of rapid, rhythmic activity
  • If you wake up now, you will not be startled; again, you might not even know you’d been asleep. But you won’t be getting to the deep sleep that should come next
Stage 3
  • 20% of sleep time
  • Delta waves in your brain put you into deep sleep
  • This is restorative sleep; it improves your immune function and your ability to repair damage caused by stress and ultraviolet rays
  • Deep sleep may determine your energy levels
  • You will move back into Stage 2 sleep before getting REM sleep
  • If you wake up now, it will be a struggle and you’ll feel disoriented

A single sleep cycle lasts 1 ½–2 hours. It involves three stages of Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep—including deep sleep (Stage 3)—and one stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, in which our brains are most active, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

  • Visually, Stage 1 (light sleep) and REM sleep occupy the same band of this chart, but they are very different processes.
  • In a typical night you should get four to six full sleep cycles.

Learn more about REM sleep

REM sleep

  • 20 percent of sleep time
  • Occurs 90 minutes after you fall asleep
  • Your first REM stage lasts about 10 minutes; your final REM stage may last up to an hour—so if your sleep is fragmented, you’re likely missing out on the longer REM stages.
  • Your brain is very active; your heart rate and breathing quickens
  • You dream. Your voluntary muscle groups become temporarily paralyzed so you don’t act on your dreams
  • If you wake up now, you will probably remember your dreams. If you don’t get enough REM sleep, you’ll be sleepy the next day and have trouble handling stress. Your memory and verbal skills will be depleted, so you may take an academic and social hit.


by SleepBot

Joe Kasper

Joe Kasper: Fourth-year undergraduate majoring in communications at Governors State University, Illinois; Student Health 101 Student Advisory Board 2015–16.

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Sleep study: Top 10 tips for better nights

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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The benefits of sleep have been unarguably established by science. Restful nights are strongly associated with happiness, healthy weight maintenance, reduced risk of chronic disease, and having a tolerable personality.

Students present like budding narcoleptics, says William C. Dement, a leading sleep expert, in his book The Promise of Sleep (2000). Still, that doesn’t stop you from knowing what you should be doing to get a better night’s sleep. In a survey for Student Health 101, 1,200 students ranked 10 of the most common sleep strategies from least to most helpful. Then you told us what we’d missed.

How would you rank these tips?

#10 Medications & supplements

More than a third of respondents ranked prescription medications the least useful of our 10 options. That might be because zolpidem, the most commonly prescribed sleep drug, is associated with dangerous behaviors like sleep-driving and that ridiculous email I sent my ex at 4 a.m. Science has yet to bring us a medication with the side effect of sleep-writing an awesome statistics paper.

You also said “no” to over-the-counter sleep aids, like melatonin, valerian, and antihistamines. Their safety and effectiveness have not been well established. Melatonin seems to have modest benefits and antihistamines can help temporarily. Melatonin is somewhat protective against nuclear radiation, so there’s that.

#9 Sleep apps

Our students don’t use them much, but many people swear by sleep management apps.

Sleep Cycle tracks your sleep habits, helps you identify unhelpful behaviors, and wakes you up gently.

Sleep As Android lets you know when you’re not getting enough zzzs and what you’re muttering in your sleep (but do you want to find out?).

Apps make your phone your bedmate, which might be problematic for those of us with compulsive technology habits.

#8 The beautiful day you just had

Less than 5 percent of you said a beautiful day is what best helps you sleep. Three times as many said it was your least helpful sleep strategy.

Is this because students don’t have beautiful days? “Bedtime stress and worries were the main predictors of sleep quality,” concluded a study in Sleep Medicine (2012). Charlotte Brontë put it more eloquently: “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”

If your angst is keeping you up, try consigning it to paper: Keep a pad and pen by your bed.

#7 Conscious relaxation or breathing exercises

Relaxation exercises can ease physical tension and mental activity and help us fall asleep more quickly.

Techniques include progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing), consciously relaxing different body parts, and visualization.

Just over 1 in 10 of you ranked this in your top 3 of our sleep solutions. Free guided relaxation exercises are available online.

#6 No alcohol and/or caffeine in the evening

“Take coffee then—this juice divine shall banish sleep,” wrote the French poet Maumenet long ago. No argument there. Caffeine lasts in your system for eight hours—and some of the most common coffee brands and energy drinks are very high in it.

But our survey respondents seem confused about alcohol. Some commented that alcohol helps them fall asleep. Maybe—but it disrupts the later stages of sleep and leaves us groggy the next day. [The legal minimum age for consuming alcohol is 21.]

In a 2007 study, the combination of not enough sleep (four hours) and one or two drinks severely impaired students’ performance on a driving simulator: 35 percent had accidents.

A quarter of respondents ranked avoiding caffeine and/or alcohol before bed among the top 3 of our 10 sleep strategies.

For a video on how alcohol affects sleep, CLICK HERE. 

#5 No computer use before (or in) bed

Electronic gadgetry is the vicious enemy of sleep. The blue wavelength light emitted by our tablets, laptops, and phones suppresses melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep cycles.

Many sleep disorders are probably related to evening or nighttime light exposure, sleep experts say.

Almost a third of our respondents ranked avoiding electronic screens before bed in their top 3 of our 10 solutions.

#4 Exercise Regularly

Physical activity helps us sleep—as confirmed yet again by the Sleep in America poll from the National Sleep Foundation. Even light exercise helps.

And although we’ve traditionally been advised not to work out in the evening, evidence from that poll suggests the timing of our workouts might not matter. More than 4 in 10 students who took our survey ranked this in the top 3 of our strategies.

#3 Dark and/or cool room at night

The lightbulb has many fine qualities, but wreaks havoc on our sleep. Having the lights on after dusk suppresses melatonin and disrupts sleep cycles. It might also raise blood pressure and the risk of diabetes, says a 2010 study.

Air temperature matters too. A room that’s too hot or too cold can interfere with your body temperature cycle through the night. The right room temperature varies: try 65°F, and be ready to adjust it up or down. Forty-five percent of our student respondents put this in their top three of our sleep strategies.

#2 A super-comfortable bed

The Princess and the Pea, the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, taught us that even minor physical discomforts can be a fearsome impediment to sleep.

While it’s hard to buy the princess’s story that the pea left her “black and blue all over,” the general point holds: We sleep better in a comfortable bed than on broken glass and porcupine spines.

Half of our student respondents ranked physical comfort in their top three sleep solutions. The poet Rupert Brooke wrote of “the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon/Smooth away trouble” (The Great Lover).

#1 Get up at a consistent time each day

“The single most important thing a person can do to set the body’s clock is to wake up at the same time every morning,” says Dr. Stephen Amira of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. For his video on maintaining a consistent wake time, CLICK HERE.

Fifty-six percent of our survey respondents ranked this in their top 3 of our 10 sleep strategies. As many students pointed out, the key is a consistent sleep schedule in general: going to bed and getting up at the same times each day. The painful piece is matching weekend and weekday wake-ups. Weekend disruption is likely to keep you groggy through the week.

Other popular sleep strategies

Recommended by students

  • Sensible consistent bedtime
  • Reading
  • Journaling
  • An orgasm (or several)
  • Soft music or ambient noise
  • Getting coursework done early
  • Prayer or meditation
  • Active days
  • Aromatherapy
  • Hot bath or shower
  • Pillow talk
  • Less partying
  • Herbal tea

Recommended by our experts

  • Strategic afternoon naps of 20–30 minutes
  • Diaphragmatic breathing combined with neck and shoulder massages
Sleep study

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