Sleep Debt Among Students

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

by Ava Harris, Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student, Dining Services Nutrition Clerical

edited by Jessica Harris, 4th Year Dietetics major, Student Nutrition Supervisor for UGA Dining Services

A photograph of a young woman with her head down on a desk.

Are you ready to rid yourself of debt? 

70% of college students experience a phenomenon called sleep debt. Sleep debt, or sleep deprivation, happens when we consistently don’t get enough sleep. The negative effects of sleep deprivation can impact our health and performance over time. If you believe you are not getting enough sleep, follow along for signs to watch out for and tips to improve your sleep routine. 

Signs You Have Sleep Debt

A topdown photograph of a table with laptops, coffee cups, and other miscellaneous items.

Decreased Productivity

A negative sleep balance can harm a college student’s productivity. Did you know your motivation to study can be significantly influenced by how much sleep you get each night? Research finds that tasks that require effort, such as school work or meal preparation, are more difficult during sleep loss (Engle, 2014). Next time you notice that you are struggling to be productive, allow yourself to get some rest and then get back into the groove tomorrow. 

A photograph of a woman making an upset face at the camera and holding her stomach.

Persistent Hunger

Not getting enough sleep can affect our hormones and energy levels. Two important hormones involved in regulating our feelings of hunger and fullness are leptin and ghrelin. When our bodies are low on energy, they produce ghrelin, which makes us feel hungry. Once we have had a satisfying meal, our bodies produce leptin, telling us we are full. Lack of sleep will throw these hormones out of balance, leading to irregular eating patterns and persistent hunger.

 Think about your energy level as a gas tank in a car. We fill up our tank by sleeping and eating regular meals. If we don’t get enough sleep, one of the energy sources is lacking, and the body will compensate by increasing your hunger—leaving your stomach growling during late-night study sessions.

A photograph of a woman sitting in front of a laptop and holding her head while looking to the side as if trying to remember something.

Decreased Memory Function

Without sufficient sleep, our ability to remember information suffers. During REM (rapid eye movement), our body consolidates memories and processes emotions and dreams. When our bodies cannot get enough REM sleep, our ability to recall lectures and notes are affected (Tucker, 2020).

Methods for Healthier Sleep Habits

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The first tip to having consistent sleep patterns is to minimize sleep debt. Stimulus control therapy has proven to be effective in achieving consistent sleep (Tucker, 2020). This theory states that someone should wake up at the same time every day, regardless of how much sleep they get. This will increase sleep debt for the next day, which will cause you to go to sleep at an earlier time. 

Next, going outside during daylight hours can help with our body’s inner sleep and wake cycles, also known as circadian rhythm. Sunlight is the most significant source of blue light. Blue light slows down melatonin production during the day so you can stay awake (Silvani, 2022).

At night when we are supposed to be winding down, we want to reduce blue light exposure so our brains will increase melatonin production. You may have heard smartphones and tvs emit blue light. When we stay up late on our devices, our brains are not able to produce melatonin properly and our circadian rhythm is disrupted. 

It's important to note that if you have trouble falling asleep, tossing and turning for an extended period of time can increase feelings of anxiety. If you cannot fall asleep within about ten minutes of lying down, try getting up and doing something mundane. This could include folding laundry, cleaning a drawer, or putting dishes away. After completing a task, try going back to bed. If you are still tossing and turning try doing another mundane task until you can fall asleep successfully. 

Finally, be sure to eat your last meal early enough before bed to reduce symptoms of heartburn and indigestion which can make it difficult to fall asleep  (Pancheco, 2024). Having your last meal a few hours before bed will also help reduce the chances of feeling hungry while trying to fall asleep.

The Bottom Line

Remember, building a healthy sleep routine requires one small step at a time. Choose a tip that feels achievable for you and build from there. Give yourself grace when you stay up late studying or scrolling, and remember that tomorrow is a new day. 



Estevan, I., Sardi, R., Tejera, A. C., Silva, A., & Tassino, B. (2021). Should I study or should I go (to sleep)? The influence of test schedule on the sleep behavior of undergraduates and its association with performance. PloS one, 16(3), e0247104.

Pacheco, D. (2024, January 9). Is it bad to eat before bed?. Sleep Foundation.,it%20takes%20to%20fall%20asleep. 

Silvani, M. I., Werder, R., & Perret, C. (2022). The influence of blue light on sleep, performance and wellbeing in young adults: A systematic review. Frontiers in physiology, 13, 943108.

Tucker, R. M. (2020, March 19). Sleep and the RDN: Incorporating sleep education to reduce chronic disease risk. YouTube.