Student News

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts College Students

Mark Cornelison | UKphoto
Mark Cornelison | UKphoto

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 4, 2022) — Getting a good night’s sleep is of the utmost importance. However, sleep tends to be put on the backburner when juggling hard classes, work, social lives and the everyday life of a college student. Lauren Whitehurst, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, provided UKNow with some information about sleep deprivation and the benefits of getting a full night of sleep.

UKNow: What is sleep deprivation and how is it caused?

Whitehurst: Sleep deprivation is the partial or complete loss of one's normal sleep. It can be caused through several factors, including changes in one's schedule as well as personal or environmental stressors.

UKNow: Why are you interested in learning about sleep as a profession? 

Whitehurst: I like studying sleep because it is something that is generalizable, in that all humans and just about every living thing on the planet does it, but it is also intimate in that we all do it in our own unique ways. Our bodies need it as much as they need food and water, but we have our own relationships to it and our society, cultural values and environments can influence how and when we do it. That makes it an interesting thing to understand from many levels of analysis: physiological, biological, social and environmental.

UKNow: What are ways you can prevent sleep deprivation?

Whitehurst: One should try to prioritize their sleep in their everyday life. Try to avoid situations that would make you want to sacrifice your sleep. For example, waiting to study until the last minute and pulling an all-nighter will cause you to sacrifice your sleep and is often not as helpful as you may think. Sometimes sleep loss is inevitable (e.g., you have a new sibling that cries through the night or take a new job that you have to stay up during the night to work). In those situations, optimize your schedule to get the most sleep when you can.

UKNow: How is sleep deprivation hurting college students' academics?

Whitehurst: The college population is a notoriously sleepy group! Consequences of sleep deprivation range from poor academic performance as your ability to remember key facts from your classes is reduced when you are sleepy and poor emotional regulation which may make it difficult to make new friends, maintain key social relationships and even put you at greater risk for mental health conditions like depression and a host of anxiety disorders.  Sleep deprivation also impacts your immune system, making it more likely that you will catch an illness if you encounter one or that your symptoms when sick will be worse than if you are well-rested.

UKNow: What are the benefits of getting a full night's sleep both in and out of the classroom?

Whitehurst: Benefits of getting a good night's rest are many! You will be able to stay healthy and avoid serious sickness which will keep you in the classroom learning all the important things necessary to do well. Additionally, sleep is intimately related to your ability to think clearly, focus and learn new information. Prioritizing your sleep at night will make you optimally prepared to learn in the classroom. Lastly, the friends that we meet during college are one of the main things that make this time so special. Ensuring that you are well-slept will also allow you to have the emotional capacity to support your friends and receive the care that your friends hope to give you. Good sleep also makes us feel better about ourselves and allows us to better regulate ourselves during stressful situations that we will all likely encounter at some point. 

UKNow: What resources does UK have that would be beneficial for students experiencing sleep deprivation?

Whitehurst: One great resource is the SleepRate app, which is free to students, staff and faculty. This app, and the accompanying support from UK Campus Recreation and Wellness, will help you track your sleep habits, learn about hindrances to your sleep and enact a plan to sleep better. 

UKNow: Any additional information you think could be useful to students!

Whitehurst: Don't treat sleep as a luxury, in that you only get to do it if you have checked off everything on your to-do list and have done well that day. Treat sleep as the biological necessity that it is. Plan it into your day and protect your time right before and right after it. Your mind, body and overall health will appreciate it! 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.