A remarkable amount of recent research on sleep has resulted in a wake-up call about the importance of getting good quality sleep on a regular basis.
The following are some tips from Dennis Auckley, M.D. (Director, MetroHealth’s Center for Sleep Medicine) on how to get a good night's sleep so you're at your best and brightest at college.
1. Get enough sleep
Not getting adequate amounts of sleep on a regular basis (also known as chronic partial sleep deprivation) can have wide ranging consequences. Not only can this affect how you feel (fatigued, run down, anxious), how you interact with others (irritable, short-tempered), and how you do in school (lack of concentration, poor school performance), it can also impact your health. Believe it or not, chronic partial sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain!
We've all heard of the "freshman 15" — the weight gain many individuals experience during their freshman year of college. Well, aside from poor eating choices, a major contributing factor to this may be a lack of adequate sleep. Recent research has shown that when you partially sleep deprive yourself on a regular basis, this leads to a change in the hormones that control appetite. But it's not just the increased appetite that's a concern, the lack of sleep leads to cravings for food high in sugar and salt — in other words, foods that are unhealthy. So to keep looking and feeling your best, you need to get enough sleep.
How much sleep do you need to avoid these problems? Sleep needs vary from person to person, though most college students will need at least eight hours per night to feel rested. If you're not sure how much sleep you should be getting, the easiest way to determine this is to see how much sleep you need when you're on vacation (though only after the first few days since the initial parts of vacation are times when people are often sleeping longer than normal to "make up" for chronic lost sleep.)
2. Maintain a regular sleep schedule
One of the strategies to ensure adequate and good quality sleep is to go to sleep at about the same time on a night-to-night basis. This simple habit keeps the circadian clock (your internal body rhythms) regular, so you will be sleepy as you approach our normal bedtime. And while most people, especially in college, will tend to stay up later and sleep later on weekends, trying to keep in-bed and out-of-bed times within one to two hours of your normal weekday schedule is best.
3. Practice good sleep habits
One way to make sure you are getting good quality sleep during your in-bed hours is to practice good sleep hygiene. These simple rules can make a world of difference if you stick with them:
• Exercise regularly, but avoid heavy exercise within six hours of bedtime. Mild exercise should be done no more than four hours before bedtime.
• Avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime. "Reasonable" caffeine consumption is considered to be the equivalent of about one to two cups of coffee per day.
• Avoid the use of nicotine close to bedtime or during the night.
• Do not drink alcohol when sleepy. Even a small dose of alcohol can have a significant effect when combined with mild tiredness and the combination of the two can make you very sleepy. In addition, alcohol tends to cause sleep disruption after the first few hours of sleep.
• Protect your sleep environment! Keep TVs, radios, iPods, and cell phones off when you are sleeping.
4. Avoid all-nighters
Many students have a tendency to want to pull an "all-nighter" to cram for big tests. Recent studies have shown that this may not be such a good idea. Getting a good night's sleep following a study session (as opposed to staying up all night) actually improves test scores and helps with the long-term retention of material (or, the process of learning). It turns out that dream sleep appears to be very important in consolidating short-term experiences into long-term memories. So study early and get some sleep before that big exam.
5. If you have a delayed sleep phase, adjust your schedule accordingly
Many college students have a delayed sleep phase, or a tendency to want to stay up late and sleep in. If you have early morning classes and have trouble getting to sleep at an hour sufficient to ensure adequate sleep, then you may run into problems from chronic partial sleep deprivation, as noted earlier. If you do have a delayed sleep phase and are unable to adjust your internal rhythms to allow for an earlier bedtime, then you should probably consider adjusting your school schedule to better match your sleep habits. This might mean scheduling all late morning or afternoon classes. Many schools will accommodate such requests.
Dr. Dennis Auckley is the Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He performs research on sleep and sleep disorders with a special focus on sleep disordered breathing.
Dr. Auckley is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, Critical Care Medicine and Sleep Medicine and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. He also serves as a sleep expert for the Netwellness consumer health information website (www.netwellness.org ).