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As college students, we’ve all been in those situations where we’ve pulled desperate all-nighters before exams or had to work well past when we wanted to. If you’re a student at the University of Michigan, chances are that you’ve experienced at least one of these scenarios. More often than not, we take the practice of sleep and its necessity for granted. After all, roughly one-third of our lives seems like more than enough time to sacrifice for this one task. We don’t really need eight hours of sleep every night, do we?

The practice of sleep hygiene actually impacts our biological well-being more deeply than we recognize on an everyday basis. Strong sleep hygiene involves shaping your life choices and bedroom to suit “consistent, uninterrupted sleep.” Benefits, ranging from cognitive to physical to psychological health and ability, can derive a substantial boost from sleep. The list of benefits can be endless when it comes to the body’s reliance on sleep. The body uses it to consolidate memories, regulate emotions and ultimately organize the framework for our cognition while we are awake. Essentially, the literal length of our life span and the quality of life we will live throughout that time holds direct ties to our sleep habits.

This can be an understandably intimidating lens to view a habit we’re inherently programmed to do. But ultimately, it’s a necessary practice. Studies have shown that over 70% of college students get insufficient sleep, which can have consequences that go past lifelong damage to our physical well-being. Certain types of memory are actually known to correspond with certain types of sleep stages, with our procedural memory being dependent on the quality of our rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and declarative memory depending on non-REM sleep. In short, our very efforts of sacrificing sleep in order to get ahead in school are actually undermining our ability to achieve this goal in the first place.

Unfortunately, as nice as it would be, merely recognizing the importance of sleep is not enough. Any student can tell you that they need more sleep, but cultivating good sleep habits in college can be difficult for most. When trying to balance it on top of assignments, exams, a social life, exercise, self-care, extracurriculars and whatever other commitments that life demands of us, it seems even more daunting. On top of that, common habits of college students like alcohol consumption, technology use and caffeine consumption directly inhibit our sleep quality. So rather than trading in the very joys of life that we seek to lengthen with the practice of sleep, we can instead make an effort to construct a healthy balance that allows us to better attune to our body’s needs.

In order to comprehensively formulate an optimal sleep schedule, the fundamental factors that induce sleep and determine its quality need to be understood. A lot of different components go into developing this toolkit. That’s why the most realistic way to integrate a healthy sleep routine into our lives is to simply become aware of those components and make a concerted effort to fit an attainable amount of these practices into your daily life. The key constituents to achieve sleep that is uninterrupted and of good quality are a unique amalgamation of body temperature, environment, supplements, consistent circadian rhythms, exercise, noise and more.

Above all, perhaps one of the most fundamental things to aim for is establishing a proper circadian rhythm, which is your body’s internal clock. What is essentially a large bundle of nerves in our brain, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, dictates our body’s natural timings and rhythms. Simply aiming to wake up around the same time every morning can help keep this clock in check, no matter the hour you fell asleep. This means that even while accounting for those late nights studying, partying or whatever your night leads to, staying consistent as much as possible in this area can hold valuable benefits.

Regulating this cycle also means understanding the biological manifestations of it. Along with the simple act of sleep, the quality of sleep that we get is just as important. Uninterrupted, restful sleep allows our bodies to perform integral functions in our waking lives. For us, what is perhaps the most important factor in this context is adenosine. Adenosine is the chemical that induces both sleep and our desire for it. Caffeine and other stimulants work by decreasing the amount of adenosine in our body for a temporary period, blocking us from that desire. Adenosine metabolism carries a direct link to both the quality of deep sleep and a person’s vulnerability to sleep deprivation. Studies have even shown that it places a hypnotic effect on our brain, altering our mind and bodily functions to achieve sleep faster. Executing control over your body’s adenosine regulation can even be seen as the key to properly govern your sleep cycle. 

Removing caffeine from the equation is one of the more obvious ways to control our adenosine levels, but realistically, many of us are far past the point of return when it comes to our morning coffee or daily energy drink. Instead, adding certain beneficial habits to our routines can have the same effect. One of those is incorporating consistent exercise, which is known to naturally increase our adenosine and help regulate our homeostatic sleep as a whole. There are also certain nutrients that we can aim to add into our lives through diet or supplements that aid in blocking ADA, the enzyme that breaks adenosine down, thus increasing its amount. These include curcumin, mainly found in turmeric, berberine and naringenin, which is found in citrus fruits and tomatoes. 

Another important contributor to our sleep quality is the environment in which we sleep. Light plays an important role in how our body perceives the time of day and adjusts our internal clock accordingly. It signals our brains to produce cortisol, which keeps us alert. Exposure to artificial light (such as from our phones) can prevent the onset of sleep as well as inhibit us from achieving slow-wave sleep, an integral part of our sleep cycle. Luckily for us, the cells in our eyes that recognize exposure to light — the retinal ganglion cells — have an affinity for what type of light they process. These cells are very sensitive to blue light but are also known to ignore red light. By reducing the amount of blue light emanating from our devices, we can help limit the damage it does to our circadian rhythms. 

This can be achieved in multiple ways, such as through software or apps available for download. For those with iPhones, Apple even offers a “Night Shift” setting that turns down the blue light on devices’ screens as the day progresses. While the use of “blue light” glasses have also become a prominent trend in combating blue light, a much more effective option would be to opt for FL-41 tinted glasses. These glasses cover a more expansive wavelength past only the highest energy of blue light, even dipping into green. At wavelengths past 410 nm, these have been shown to block more than 25 times the blue light than conventional blue light glasses. 

Ultimately, the numerous benefits that come with sleep are something we often take for granted. At least trying to aid our ability to maximize these benefits can have unimaginable benefits that will dictate the rest of our lives. Properly understanding the factors that contribute to a healthy amount of sleep, as well as how we can best manipulate them, is the first step toward this goal. 

Sreelakshmi Panicker is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at sreep@umich.edu.

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