According to an article in Psychology Today, Americans sleep an average of seven hours per night. Most college students would laugh maniacally at that number though, for the majority of students get less than seven hours of sleep, especially during finals.
LSA freshman Callie Finzel said she gets about six hours of sleep per night.
“I probably get a half hour to an hour less during finals,” she said.
While many students believe sleep is a nicety and not a necessity in the fast-paced college atmosphere, many experts disagree.
“Our culture devalues sleep, thinks it’s a waste of time and is largely optional. But sleep is as important as eating and breathing,” said Roseanne Armitage, director of the University’s Sleep and Chronophysiology Laboratory.
Sleeping is more complicated than most people think. Rob Ernst, associate director for Clinical Services at University Health Service, said there are two types of sleep — slow wave sleep and REM sleep. Slow wave sleep takes up the majority of the sleep cycle and is a less deep sleep than REM sleep.
Though the body gets less REM sleep than slow-wave sleep, both types are necessary in order for the body to function.
“REM sleep is the stage of sleep that makes you feel refreshed when you wake up,” he said.
Ernst also said adults should get about eight hours of sleep per night. But he went on to say that “each individual person has unique needs that determine the amount of sleep they should get,” and stress, health and age all affect the number of hours of sleep needed.
This flexibility in how much sleep a person needs might be part of the reason why everyone falls asleep in that 2 p.m lecture. Those people who need more sleep might be trying to catch up. Armitage recommended an easy way of identifying sleep deprivation.
“Go into a dark room and sit in a comfortable chair. If you start to fall asleep, you are not getting enough sleep at night,” Armitage said. “Boredom doesn’t make you sleepy; it just unmasks sleepiness because you’ve taken away the stimulation and social engagement that normally overrides tiredness.”
“I’ll just sacrifice a bit of sleep tonight”
Armitage said one of the most important uses of sleep is to repair the body.
“Good immune system regulation is dependent upon sleep,” she said.
Hence, a lack of sleep has been correlated with reduced resistance to colds and the flu. But the problems don’t end there. With finals looming in the future, it is important to note that students with insomnia and other sleeping disorders seem to have reduced academic performance and increased forgetfulness, according to Armitage.
Ernst recommended students get eight hours of sleep before essay exams in particular because sleep deprivation can impair processing and analyzing. Essay exams “require a difficult skills set and require the body to be more prepared,” he said.
Ernst and Armitage both mentioned that sleep deprivation has been connected to depression, elevated stress level, weight gain and anxiety disorders. These findings were corroborated in an article in the Journal of American College Health, which said a lack of sleep also leads to tension, irritability and general life dissatisfaction. But sleep deprivation does not necessarily cause depression and anxiety disorders.
“Depression is a syndrome of symptoms looked at together,” Ernst said.
“I’ll catch up on the weekend”
According to Ernst, sleep is a clock driven process; the sleep-wake rhythm is called a circadian rhythm. Altering this rhythm by changing the time or amount of sleep creates extra sleepiness and feelings of jet lag.
As Armitage said, “Anyone who has played ‘weekend catch-up’ on sleep knows that it is harder to get out of bed on Monday morning than on other days,” because the body’s circadian rhythms have been disrupted.
It is actually counter-productive to attempt to catch up on all the sleep missed during the week on the following Saturday. Instead, both experts recommend getting a consistent amount of sleep on weekdays and weekends.
In the long term, “it is easier on the body to not disrupt the sleep pattern,” said Ernst. And despite the temptation to stay up until 3 a.m. on a Friday night, Armitage also recommends setting the same bedtime and rise-time in order to prevent a problem with the body’s circadian rhythm.
“…or I’ll nap this afternoon.
Frequenting the Shapiro Undergraduate Library study carrels reveals about as many students napping as studying. To compensate for the lack of sleep during the night, many students, like Finzel, take naps between classes.
“If I’m studying for extended periods of time, I’ll take a 15 to 30-minute nap. Otherwise nothing processes, nothing gets in,” Finzel said.
The good news is that people who take short naps are more alert afterward and seem to have more energy.
“As a short-term fix, a nap allows you to recharge your level of alertness,” Ernst said.
Armitage agreed but said that REM sleep, which helps the body rest and recover, is “heavily dependent on how long you have been awake during the day. If this varies from day to day, then the timing of the sleep cycle will be altered.”
Changing the circadian rhythm then obstructs the recovery function of sleeping and will result in continued tiredness overall. So short naps are helpful, but long naps may actually cause more sleepiness than they relieve.
Sometimes sleep deprivation is not due to a homework load but instead to insomnia. “The complaint of insomnia is very common at UHS,” Ernst said.
For insomniacs, the most important technique is to develop a sleep routine and a favorable sleep environment. Ernst said this can include putting on background music or noise, eliminating distracting sounds, limiting eating and drinking (and stimulants like caffeine and cigarettes) before bed and exercising about two hours before going to sleep.
He also cautioned that difficulty sleeping often leads to alcohol and drug abuse, which adversely affects REM sleep. Drinking alcohol before bed results in “the trap of taking something sedating before sleep,” Ernst said. Instead, if a person is experiencing trouble getting to sleep, he should just get up and do something, according to Ernst.
So before finals, make sure to set a schedule of constant sleep habits that includes more than seven hours of sleep per night. While it might not sound exciting or be as quick of a fix as caffeine or sugar, it leads to a happier state of mind. And who knows, it might even result in being able to stay awake for that pesky 2 p.m. lecture.