Bedtime and the Freshman 15After reading recent headlines that address the role of sleep in maintaining a healthy weight, students have started to realize that it might not only be the questionable dining hall food contributing to the dreaded “freshman fifteen.” Though the extra pounds are often talked about as the butt of a joke, they could actually be indicative of health issues that go deeper than vanity. The weight on the scale does not indicate well-being, but staying aware of weight changes and maintaining a stable, healthy weight is critical for good health.

While studies address the importance of sleep and weight, there are also an increasing number of studies revealing the growing rate of stress on college campuses.  The combination of increased stress and irregular sleep can have harrowing impacts on health, including (but not limited to) immediate weight gain and increased risk for some chronic diseases. Research has shown that it doesn’t take long for a lack of sleep to take its toll on your body.  Just two nights of sleep restriction can increase appetite (Spiegel et al., 2004) and alter blood glucose regulation (Spiegel et al., 2005).

The extra weight, which is typically a gain of around five to ten pounds during the first year of college, is likely due largely to a shift in sleep patterns. Studies show that working the night shift, which requires irregular sleep patterns, can increase the risk of Type 2 Diabetes and obesity, even in young people. These correlations are related to the change in circadian rhythm and lower quality sleep—two features that parallel the shifts in college students’ sleep habits.

Some college students might argue that they have too much work or simply “work better at night”. However, with all of the mounting health evidence against them, should students believe that the benefit is really worth all the harm restricted sleep can do to your body? Beyond even the physical effects, research shows that sleep deprivation can impair emotional regulation and lead to increased reactions to stress. Lack of sleep could partially account for data from the Spring 2015 National College Health Assessment survey. This survey found that 42.8% of college students report feeling more stress than average, while 10.7% report feeling tremendous stress. High levels of stress are also associated with a plethora of adverse health outcomes: depression, obesity, autoimmune disorders, cognitive impairment, and inflammatory disorders (to name a few).

College students, particularly first year students going through a time of transition, often experience increased stress, alterations to sleep patterns, and weight gain. But don’t lose all hope—with some small changes, these consequences can be mitigated! Although some late nights are part of the college experience, maintaining sleep hygiene  is critical to feeling well rested and getting the most out of your sleep time.

Bedtime and the Freshman 15

To make sure that your sleep hygiene remains in check, the National Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, getting adequate exercise during the day, getting exposure to natural light, and using your bed only for sleep (rather than sitting in bed to study or watch TV). Some of these tips might sound obvious, but small changes can have enormous impact.

It may be difficult to make a drastic change to your sleep habits overnight. Sleep researcher and faculty member for the Center for the Study of Human Health, Amanda Freeman, advises student to aim for an extra 15-20 minutes of sleep each night and build up slowly to achieve the goal of 7-9 hours per night. Even if an individual is naturally a night owl, their college classes often require early wake-up times. This necessitates a sleep schedule that can accommodate early mornings. In addition to improving sleep habits, make sure to practice proper self-care to minimize stress–do what you need to do to feel mentally well. Exercise consistently, read your favorite novel, watch your favorite TV show, and honor what you need. Consistent sleep patterns are beneficial, but don’t forget to stick to regular meal schedule, as well. Eating well-balanced meals at regular times will keep you from getting hangry or snacking late into the night, which can add extra pounds quickly. Although it may take some work and a few lifestyle changes, it is possible to arrive well rested and mentally prepared for a class at 8AM while maintaining a healthy weight and balanced lifestyle.


Editor’s Note: This was originally posted to Destination Health EU, the website of Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health.


  • Spiegel, K., Knutson, K., Leproult, R., Tasali, E., and Van Cauter, E. (2005). Sleep loss: a novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Journal of applied physiology 99, 2008-2019.
  • Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., and Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of internal medicine 141, 846-850.

About The Author


Hannah Heitz is a junior at Emory University where she is studying Psychology and Human Health. She has always had an interest in cooking, and her passion for fitness and holistic health has grown during her time at college. Her favorite fitness activity is POP Pilates and loves playing with recipes in the kitchen. Hannah loves positive psychology and hopes to pursue this interest and improving health and fitness of others through future studies! Check out her blog at

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