Alcohol, Sleep, and Learning

College students may think that moderate drinking has no negative effects on learning and health. As little as one drink, however, can impair a person’s ability to get a good night’s sleep, which can lead to more significant problems.

Why Sleep

The average young adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep on a nightly basis, but it's important to remember that every body is unique. To perform well in your academic work, you must focus on creating the best possible learning environment. This means making sure you are getting enough sleep and taking care of yourself. You might be getting enough hours to get by for a few days, but it will catch up to you and affect your learning and memory. Think of regular sleep as an essential tool that allows you to recharge and be more focused, alert, and healthier. 

Effects of Alcohol

Most people find that a drink or two before bed helps them fall asleep faster. This may be true. However, as alcohol is metabolized during the night, sleep becomes progressively lighter and more disturbed. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep may also be particularly affected. Disturbances of sleep lead to fatigue and sleepiness during the day. The more one drinks, the faster the person will fall asleep, but the likelihood of sleep disturbances increases. Alcohol consumed up to 6 hours before bedtime can affect sleep patterns, increasing the longevity of disturbances alcohol causes in the body's sleep cycles. Without adequate quality of sleep, a person will feel tired, despite sleeping for 7-8 hours.     

People who do not get enough sleep are more susceptible to:

  • Learning difficulties

  • Poor concentration

  • Coordination/performance issues

  • Irritability

  • Decreased cognitive abilities

  • Memory deficits

  • Impaired social and occupational function

  • Medical conditions such as heart disease

Implications for Students       

  • Information a student studies before drinking is harder to recall
  • Harder to pay attention in class and concentrate on work
  • When sleep is disrupted a person is more susceptible to depression disorders and a decrease in cognitive abilities. Studies show that normal memory function (learning) is dependent on adequate sleep.
  • Heavy drinking often results in missing classes and falling behind in assignments.                                       

Both lack of sleep and alcohol consumption are common occurrences in a college student's life. Many college students are significantly sleep-deprived. The adverse effects of alcohol on sleep magnify this effect. Both of these practices can have negative effects on cognitive abilities, especially when paired together.