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Hot Topics! College Students & Sleep

How's Your Sleep?

College students are at a high risk for not getting an adequate amount of sleep. Varying class times, demanding work schedules, and busy social lives often mean that sleep is a low priority. However, problems with insomnia and ongoing sleep deprivation have many negative repercussions:  it can contribute to memory problems and difficulty in logical reasoning, it can interrupt physiological processes related to hormone function and blood pressure, and it is associated with decreases in both efficiency and ability to concentrate.

Although getting 8 hours of sleep per night is still the general guideline, individual needs can vary from as little as 5 to as many of 10 hours of sleep necessary to feel rested and refreshed. Sleep debt can be a real problem, because it accumulates over time--i.e., a couple of "all nighters" in a week will make a serious impact. Catching extra sleep on weekends can feel like it helps to repay some of this debt, but irregular amounts of sleep can actually serve to interfere with your sleep cycle and to result in increased difficulties falling asleep, also known as insomnia.

So, what to do? Continue reading for ideas on getting a restful night's sleep.

Make the most of the sleep that you DO get

  1. Modify alcohol consumption. Although alcohol can help you to fall asleep, it disrupts the sleep cycle and will leave you feeling less rested the next day.  For more assistance in this area, visit College Students & Alcohol/Other Drugs and/or our AOD pages.
  2. Decrease smoking. Large levels of nicotine in the blood result in increased agitation and decreased restful sleep. If you need help managing your smoking, visit our Hot Topics! Stopping Smoking page.
  3. Exercise regularly. Regular exercise produces a higher percentage of deep sleep as well as fewer awakenings during the night. However, don't exercise just before bedtime. For more information, visit our Hot Topics! page on Eating Well & Exercising in College.
  4. Take a look at your diet.  Make sure that you are consuming adequate amounts of B-complex vitamins, as several of the B vitamins can enhance restful sleep as well as reduce fatigue. If you are not eating a well-balanced diet, consider taking a supplement.
  5. Reduce caffeine intake.  In particular, don’t consume caffeine within 4 hours of bedtime--for most people, caffeine contributes to insomnia and disrupts sleep.
  6. Set realistic daily goals. Setting goals helps to minimize the possibility that you will stay awake thinking about what you have not accomplished that day. Perfectionists and worriers tend to have more trouble sleeping. If you need help reducing anxiety, visit our Hot Topics! page on College Students & Stress or attend one of our Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds programs through GOLD.
  7. Establish a regular sleep schedule. Although this can be difficult for college students, as much as possible, it is important to try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each day--failing to do so is like putting yourself through jet lag on a regular basis!
  8. Practice diaphragmatic (deep) breathing.  When practiced before bed, not only will deep breathing help you to feel more relaxed and to facilitate sleep, but also you are likely to obtain more restful sleep.  For specific instructions for doing this effectively, read our article on Just BREATHE!
  9. Sleeping Well in the Digital Age - This resource provides insights into the correlation between light and the brain and how it negatively impacts sleep patterns.

If you have tried all of the above and are still feeling tired all of the time, you might benefit from reading The Exhaustion Cure, a Whole Living article offering solutions to some of life's most common energy drains.

Combating Insomnia

While it is normal for college students to have occasional difficulties falling asleep, regular insomnia can cause serious problems. Symptoms of insomnia include difficulties falling asleep, waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep, waking up too early in the morning, and unrefreshing sleep. Acute or short-term insomnia may not require treatment. But if your insomnia makes it hard to function during the day because you are sleepy and tired, you may want to consider making an appointment with a professional in either Health or Counseling Services.

For some basic strategies to help combat insomnia, review this handout on Getting a Good Night's Sleep. The article includes links to other web sites for more information on healthy sleep. For further information, Yoga Journal magazine has also written an excellent article titled Sweet Slumber--check it out for additional tips on learning how to relax, engaging in breathing to help you feel calm, and even practicing a few basic yoga poses to facilitate sleep.  If you need more help with relaxation, try this link for Audio Relaxation Exercises on our College Students & Stress page or try one of the various free apps available, including a guided meditation for sleep and a white noise machine.  And, if all else fails, you can always try counting sheep!

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