The college years are notoriously sleep-deprived for the majority of people. Between classwork, extracurriculars, and a quality social life, sleep often falls low on the list of priorities. I’ve recently had numerous conversations with students who have told me that they are having difficulty with their sleep. In a 2013 survey, 89.4% of TU students stated that feeling sleepy during daytime activities was a problem for them. In the same survey, 20.7% of TU students reported “sleep difficulties” as a factor affecting their individual academic performance. So why all the statistics? To show you that a lack of adequate sleep not only leaves us feeling sleepy during the day but also decreases our brain function and physical health as well.
The key to better sleep is knowing how much is necessary and how to get the most out of that time. In the world of sleep there are two factors- quantity (how many hours) and quality (how well you slept). The general guideline for quantity is about 8 hours- however- individual needs can vary from as little as 5 to as many of 10 hours of sleep necessary to feel rested and refreshed. Take me for example- I know that I need 9 hours of sleep to perform at my peak. The people closest to me often poke fun at my strictly regimented sleep schedule but I can tell you that keeping to my schedule has made me a more energetic and MUCH happier person. A lack in quantity can lead to what is called “sleep debt” which can be a problem because it accumulates over time. This is why all-nighters are not a good idea- staying up most of the night to study can actually be counterproductive to your performance the next day. Another thing students love is getting minimal sleep during the week and then trying to “catch up” on weekends. This may feel like it helps to repay some of that debt, but irregularities in your quantity of sleep can actually interfere with your sleep cycle. This can result in increased difficulties falling asleep- also known as insomnia. Now for quality. During the night, you move back and forth between stages of deep sleep, more alert stages, and dreaming (REM sleep). Together, the stages of REM and deep sleep form a sleep cycle which lasts around 90 minutes and repeats 4 to 6 times over the course of a night. In order for you to get the maximum benefit from sleep you need to complete these cycles. Uninterrupted completion of these cycles is sleep quality. Getting woken up, not getting enough time, or other external factors can all affect your quality of sleep.
What can good sleep do for you? Getting regular, high quality sleep can help to:
- Slow down the aging process- deprivation causes your hormones to behave like those of a much older person.
- Increase your academic performance- lack of sleep for even one night can interfere with memory, concentration, and performance.
- Maintain your weight- losing sleep causes your hormones to go haywire, increasing your cravings for those bad-for-you foods.
- Improve your mood- people who get a good sleep on a regular basis are happier and more content.
So what can you do to help improve your sleep habits?
- Keep cool. Most people like to buddle up and get cozy under a number of blankets at night when in actuality your body temperature has to drop in order for you to fall asleep. When it comes time for bed, keep your bedroom cool and avoid late night snacks since digestion raises body temperature.
- Keep to a schedule. You should be going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time each day. Just because you have a 9:00am class Monday and a 2:00pm Tuesday, does not mean you should sleep in until 1:30pm Tuesday. If you wake up at 8:00am on Monday, you should aim to wake up at that time every day. You will be amazed at all the things you can accomplish during this found time- extra studying, assignments completed, extra time in the gym… etc. You can get to bed earlier too since you will have completed all of your work ahead of time!
- Maintain a good environment. Make sure your room is free of distractions and added light- keep that TV off! The noise and flashing lights can interfere with your cycles.
- Use supportive devices. Earplugs, sound machines, and eye masks can all help to block out noisy roommates or neighbors.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime as both of these can affect your sleep quality.
- Get your exercise just right. Regular daily exercise reduces stress, helps you to relax, and can even improve your sleep quality. Consider exercising in the morning as opposed to later in the evening- the gym will be less crowded and you won’t have to worry about your workout impacting your ability to get to sleep.
- Learn relaxation techniques. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, biofeedback, and progressive muscle relaxation can all help you calm down and improve your sleep quality. If you are having trouble falling asleep at night consider writing out a to-do list for the next day before bed and learn to replace unwanted thoughts with relaxing visualizations. It sounds silly but counting sheep is rather effective for some people!
Insufficient sleep impacts our health, safety, our moods, and our GPA. If you’re looking to succeed, get more sleep! If you find yourself with more questions on what you can do to help improve your sleep check out the resources at http://www.sleepfoundation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coordinator, Health Education and Promotion Services
Dowell Health Center