Sleep restores us physically, mentally, and emotionally, playing a critical role in our health including immune function, metabolism, memory, and learning.

The right amount of sleep is important for the mind and body to function properly. Sleep gives the brain, as well as muscles, organs, and different body systems, a much-needed break. It helps us replenish our strength, bolster our immune system, and recover from illness and injury. It also provides a mental hiatus- a distraction for the mind from the complex cognitive and emotional processing that occurred during the day.

Chronic sleep deprivation may increase your risk of:

  • mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, moodiness, and ability to manage stress
  • chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer
  • other illness due to reduced ability to fight off poor health
  • lapses of concentration and memory loss
  • poor weight management
  • impaired decision making

Studies have shown that a lack of sleep causes the following problems:

  • Thinking processes slow down. It becomes harder to focus and pay attention.
  • People are more easily confused.
  • People become angry or upset more easily.
  • It leads to faulty decision-making and more risk taking.
  • It slows down reaction times.

Students who have trouble grasping new information or learning new skills are often advised to "sleep on it," and that advice seems well-founded. Studies reveal that people can learn a task better if they are well rested. They can also remember better if they get a good night's sleep after learning the task than if they are sleep-deprived. Volunteers had to sleep at least six hours to show improvement in learning, and the amount of improvement was directly linked to how much time they slept. In other words, volunteers who slept eight hours outperformed those who slept only six or seven hours. Other studies suggest that all the benefits of training for mentally challenging tasks are maximized after a good night's sleep, rather than immediately following the training or after sleeping for a short period overnight.

Exactly what happens during sleep to improve our learning, memory, and insight is not known. Experts suspect, however, that while people sleep, they form or reinforce the pathways of brain cells needed to perform these tasks. This process may explain why sleep is needed for proper brain development in infants. And not only is a good night's sleep required to form new learning and memory pathways in the brain, but sleep also speeds up the activity on existing pathways.

Most people report being irritable, if not downright unhappy, when they lack sleep. People who chronically suffer from a lack of sleep, either because they do not spend enough time in bed or because they have an untreated sleep disorder, are at greater risk of developing depression. One group of people who usually do not get enough sleep is mothers of newborns. Some experts think depression after childbirth (postpartum blues) is caused, in part, by a lack of sleep.

Sleep gives the heart and vascular system a much-needed rest. During non-REM sleep, the heart rate and blood pressure progressively slow as people enter deeper sleep. During REM sleep, heart rates and blood pressure have boosted spikes of activity. Overall, however, sleep reduces heart rates and blood pressure by about 10 percent.

If people do not get enough sleep, this nightly dip in blood pressure, which appears to be important for good cardiovascular health, may not occur. According to several studies, if blood pressure does not dip during sleep, people are more likely to experience strokes, chest pain known as angina, an irregular heartbeat, and heart attacks. People are also more likely to develop congestive heart failure, a condition in which fluid builds up in the body because the heart is not pumping sufficiently.

A lack of sleep also puts the body under stress and may trigger the release of more adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones during the day. These hormones contribute to blood pressure levels not dipping during sleep, thereby increasing the risk for heart disease. Inadequate sleep may also negatively affect the heart and vascular system by the increased production of certain proteins thought to play a role in heart disease. For example, some studies find that people who chronically do not get enough sleep have higher blood levels of C-reactive protein. Higher levels of this protein may suggest a greater risk of developing hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Deep sleep triggers more release of growth hormone, which fuels growth in children and boosts muscle mass and the repair of cells and tissues in children and adults. Sleep's effect on the release of sex hormones also encourages puberty and fertility. Consequently, women who work at night and tend to lack sleep are, therefore, more likely to have trouble conceiving or to miscarry.

There is also evidence that a good night's sleep can help keep people from getting sick, and help them heal faster if they do. During sleep, the body creates more cytokines (cellular hormones that help the immune system fight various infections). Lack of sleep can reduce the ability to fight off common infections. Research also reveals that a lack of sleep can reduce the body's response to the flu vaccine. For example, sleep-deprived volunteers given the flu vaccine produced less than half as many flu antibodies as those who were well rested and given the same vaccine.

Evidence is growing that sleep is a powerful regulator of appetite, energy use, and weight control. During sleep, the body's production of the appetite suppressor leptin increases, and the appetite stimulant grehlin decreases. Studies find that the less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese and prefer eating foods that are higher in calories and carbohydrates. People who report an average total sleep time of five hours a night, for example, are much more likely to become obese compared to people who sleep seven to eight hours a night.

A number of hormones released during sleep also control the body's use of energy. A distinct rise and fall of blood sugar levels during sleep appears to be linked to sleep stage. Not getting enough sleep overall (or enough of each stage of sleep) disrupts this pattern. One study found that when healthy young men slept only four hours a night for six nights in a row, their insulin and blood sugar levels mimicked those seen in people who were developing diabetes. Another study found that women who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to develop diabetes over time than those who slept between seven and eight hours a night.

When you are sleep deprived your brain reacts slower, meaning your feet and hands react slower. S

Sleep Improves Driving Safety
Sleep deprivation while driving causes one third of all motor accidents. Even minor amounts of sleep deprivation, over a short amount of time, can put you and others on the road at risk.

Recommended amount

Most adults need around eight hours of sleep per night. If you feel refreshed in the morning and awake during the day you are probably getting enough sleep.

To find out how much sleep you need, let yourself wake without an alarm for three days in a row and average the hours.

You cannot adapt to lack of sleep!  You will not get used to functioning on less sleep than you require.

Not sure if you are sleep deprived, take the Epworth Sleep Scale.

Causes of sleep disturbances

There are many factors that can contribute to sleep problems, including:

  • Stress. Experts pick stress as the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties. Worries related to work, school, marriage, relationships and recent life events can interfere with a person's ability to fall or remain asleep, or to achieve a restful state of healthy sleep.
  • Depression. People who suffer from clinical or short-term depression can have difficulty sleeping. Others with these conditions actually sleep too much.
  • Lifestyle choices. Many of the substances we ingest and activities we participate in can greatly affect our sleep. Excessive physical activity, exercising, disruptions in our natural body clock (e.g., working the night shift), drinking caffeine or alcohol, taking certain prescription or illicit drugs, smoking or tackling a stressful problem can contribute to sleep disturbances, especially if done shortly before bedtime.
  • Physical problems. A medical condition or illness-especially one accompanied by chronic pain-can make it tough to sleep well. Hormonal changes can also contribute to the problem.
  • Medications. Certain prescribed drugs, such as high blood pressure medications, can sometimes cause sleeplessness.
  • Sleep disorders. There are dozens of medically recognized clinical sleep disorders that can cause sleeping difficulties. Yet, 95 percent of people with sleep disorders remain undiagnosed. Common sleep disorders include: 

    • insomnia (inability to fall or stay asleep)
    • sleep apnea (inadequate respiration during sleep)
    • narcolepsy (tendency to fall asleep rapidly at inappropriate times)
    • restless leg syndrome
    • parasomnias (e.g., sleepwalking, nightmares, night terrors, sleep inertia, etc.)
    • chronic fatigue syndrome (feeling very tired most of the time)

Sleeping tips

Try these suggestions to get the proper amount of sleep you need:

Nutritious meals. People who lack proper nutrients in their diet can have problems with insomnia.

Have a regular routine. if you have early classes on some days, try not to sleep in on the others. Experts say a regular schedule is the most essential element of a healthy sleep routine.

Avoid napping after 4 PM.

Set your alarm clock to go off in the evening to remind you to go to bed at a reasonable time. That way you are less likely need it in the morning (if you need an alarm clock to wake up feeling rested, you are not sleeping enough).

Have a light snack in the evening. A heavy meal close to bedtime or going to bed hungry, can keep you up. Try a glass of milk. Milk has tryptophan, an essential amino acid, which stimulates the brain chemical serotonin believed to play a key role in inducing sleep. A piece of whole wheat bread, or another carbohydrate, enhances the effect.

Avoid alcohol, smoking, and caffeine at least three hours before bedtime. While alcohol does help people get to sleep faster, DO NOT use alcohol as a sleeping aid. Drinking has been shown to result in a restless, low quality of sleep as measured by nighttime awakenings (fragmented sleep) and less time spent in deep sleep Nicotine is a stimulant, and smokers may wake up several times a night due to nicotine withdrawal. Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, colas, and chocolate, is also a stimulant and may keep you from falling asleep. If you are having a difficult time sleeping, avoid caffeine (coffee, energy drinks, cola) after 2 PM. As little as two cups of coffee or two cola drinks consumed can interfere with sleep.

Relax before going to bed. Take some time to unwind. Try soaking in a hot bath. Once we leave the tub our core body temperature drops which signals the body that it is time to sleep. Avoid extreme temperatures in the room.

Use relaxation strategies. Several strategies have been identified as helpful including meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. For more information look these up on the internet.

Make your bedroom sleep friendly. Keep your bedroom slightly cool. Keep your room dark and quiet for a good sleep, use ear plugs if necessary. White noise created by a fan can block out noise and help you fall asleep. If you have trouble sleeping, see if soft sheets and a cushy mattress topper help. Some students use a white-noise machine to block out sounds of the residence hall.

Get some sunlight and exercise. Natural light influences the body’s internal clock and exposure to sunlight during the day can help you fall asleep at night. Regular exercise about thirty minutes, several times per week can help you fall asleep and sleep more soundly.

Avoid using electronics late at night. Not only will the content stimulate your brain, the brightness of the screen is comparable to a morning walk in the sun when it comes to waking you up.

Associate your bed with sleep. Try not to study or watch TV on you bed. Go to bed only when sleepy. If you cannot sleep get up and do something else, like reading a book. Return to bed only when sleepy.

Manage your worry. Try a worry book beside your bed. Write down what is bothering you and deal with it the next day. Alternatively, schedule "worry time" during the day to consider troublesome issues and make plans to resolve them.

Do not take over-the-counter sleep medications. It is always a good idea to address the underlying causes of your sleep difficulties. If you have tried the above strategies and you are still experiencing difficulties then talk to your health care provider and/or visit Student Health Services for assessment and to discuss available sleep treatments. Relying on pills to stay awake or to fall asleep is dangerous. Students who use caffeine-type pills often experience stomach distress. 


Sleep On It initiative

Sleep On It is an awareness campaign that aims to promote the importance of sleep to maintain good health, to demystify sleep difficulties, and to offer solutions to patients.

The Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network, the Canadian Sleep Society, Fondation Sommeil and Wake-up Narcolepsy Canada have joined forces to communicate scientifically valid knowledge in a simple and original way.

Use your benefits

Your benefits are designed to support your health. Make sure you are using them!


 Did you know...

Your benefits may cover:

  • Vitamins and supplements
  • Nutrition programs and counselling
  • Weight management programs (excluding food)
  • Fitness equipment
  • Personal trainers
  • Smoking cessation programs
  • and more

Sleep articles


Getting help

 There may also be underlying emotional reasons-such as a longstanding conflict, a marital problem, or job stress-that are causing the sleep difficulty. In this case, it may be best to talk to a therapist or counselor about your problem.

Employee and Family Assistance Program

USask's Employee and Family Assistance Program offers someone to talk to and resources to consult whenever and wherever you need.

Free and confidential support services include:

  • Confidential emotional support
  • Work-life solutions
  • Legal guidance
  • Financial resources
  • Physical health coaching 

1-855-575-1740 (toll-free)

Some information on this page was taken from the Employee Family Assistance Program's online resources.