We joke about sleep a fair bit on the UC San Diego campus. The campus-famous Facebook meme page bears the moniker “UCSD Memes for Sleep Deprived Teens”. After years of hearing clever nicknames, UC Sleep Deprived remains one of my favorite for the school. These jokes, however, are rooted in a serious issue: walk into any twenty-four hour study room on campus on a given evening and you will be greeted with bleary eyed looks from at least a handful of students.
We are in the norm here though. Studies done on American college campuses find 54.5% of college students report morning tiredness and 38.4% report difficulty sleeping (1) . There is bad news too; the number grows in adult populations. Reportedly 56.4% of American adults suffer from sleep problems (3) .
But normal here does not at all mean good. Shockingly, people are supposed to sleep. Spending twenty-four hours awake creates response time drops as severe as having 0.10% blood alcohol (4). That puts you outside the legal limit. In addition to the falling reaction time a whole host of other symptoms set in with sleep deprivation. I’ll name a few just to get an idea of what we are dealing with: reduced attention span, reduced pain tolerance, worse mood including feelings of worthlessness, worsened understanding of humor, inability to adapt to new stimuli, and the list goes on and on (4). Scientists believe these symptoms may result from the brain applying increasing pressure on an individual to get some sleep. Longer periods of wakefulness result in greater and greater amounts of pressure; greater pressure causes increasingly uncomfortable symptoms.
Reference for the brain stem and hypothalamus. (source)
Cortical control systems and the brainstem and hypothalamus team up to bully your consciousness into recognizing your failure (4). This bullying, known as “wake state instability”, achieves widespread impact beyond just the symptoms listed above. I’ve cut an enormous number of other symptoms because if I listed all of them here I would put you to sleep. For many of you this may not be a bad thing; you probably need it.
No one ever taught you to sleep. I am truly sorry about that. We take it as given that everyone knows how. But, when you look at the statistics above, this seems like an oversight. Chances are you are doing it at least partially wrong.
So how do I sleep? I’m glad you asked. A list of science based practices named “sleep hygiene” provides the answer. I’ll summarize the research for you.
First, I’ll run through what you can do before you even get in bed.
No energy drinks before bed (3). Most studies on caffeine sleep impact focus on loading participants with caffeine right before they attempt to go to sleep. This presents a problematic break with reality in the study settings. At least, I hope you aren’t slamming Red Bulls while you look to settle down and catch some Z’s. If you are, stop it. That is weird and dangerous. If you are not, these studies still conclude caffeine hurts sleep quality. But due to their methods, the studies fail to explain how much. Cut the caffeine to the furthest extent you can and you will net some improvement (2).
Similarly, lay off nicotine and alcohol before bed. The first is true not just for sleep but for a whole host of health reasons. Nicotine disrupts sleep. The second seems counterintuitive. Alcohol makes us sleepy and causes relaxation. But, alcohol interferes with GABA and adenosine in sleep related pathways once metabolized and locks you in early, less restful stages of sleep (3) . Drinking alcohol before bed may help you fall asleep faster, but the sleep won’t be of much use to you. Stay away from it.
Exercise during the day to improve sleep. Again, studies here struggle to provide mechanism and timeframe (3) . Similar to the case with caffeine, however, our lack of understanding does not indicate a lack of actionable information. Scientists have not yet cracked exactly why exercise does help, but they have guaranteed that exercise does help. Completing a workout during the day will almost certainly improve your sleep.
Make every effort to decrease stress before bedtime (3) . I will leave how this happens to you. For me reading a book, taking a moment to note what I am grateful for, and creating a mental or even physical checklist of priority tasks for the next day usually reduces stress. For you, de-stressing can be anything from journaling to meditating to mindful breathing. Find what works for you.
And finally, what can you do while sleeping?
Sleep in a quiet place (3) . This for me presents the biggest challenge. We live in a loud world. Roommates, busy streets, and–at least in San Diego–the occasional fighter jet try to rob us of our precious rest. I personally have settled on wearing foam earplugs to bed. They create minimal discomfort and reduce noise to near silence for all but the loudest of sounds. For you this may not be necessary. Again, be creative and reap the rewards.
Wake up at the same time every day (3) . I am comically bad at this lately. One day I wake up at 5:45 and the next day I climb out of bed at 7:00. I think I will begin setting two alarms (one that I actually have to walk to turn off) and see if I can reduce the temptation to climb back in bed. Hopefully my roommate will forgive me. Surprisingly my only advice to you with sleep timing lies with when to wake up. Studies assign less importance to when you fall asleep. In my case I tend to go for eight hours but individuals sometimes need more or can tolerate less. Genetic variation means we all feel a little differently operating on the same amount of sleep. Figure out how much you need and what works for you (3),(5).
Set consistent alarms to ensure a regular wake up time (source)
Finally, perhaps my favorite advice of all; take naps (3) . The general body of research contradicts the common advice to avoid napping. Napping has been found to have no substantial effect on night-time sleep quality. So feel free to steal some daytime sleep whenever you can.
With all this advice you will be on a path to better sleep and reduction of all the very bad earlier symptoms. Take care of yourselves as we head into midterm season and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about additional symptoms or my favorite on campus napping spots. And check back in a couple weeks for a new blog.
(1) Buboltz, Walter C., et al. “Sleep Habits and Patterns of College Students: A Preliminary Study.” Journal of American College Health, vol. 50, no. 3, 24 Mar. 2010, pp. 131–135., doi:10.1080/07448480109596017