College students are among the most sleep-deprived people in the country. This may be due to the irregularity of their sleeping habits. According to a 2001 study, only 11% of college students have good sleep quality, and 73% have occasional sleep problems. This same study found that 18% of college men and 30% of college women reported suffering from insomnia within the past 3 months, and over half reported feeling sleepy during the morning.

Most people need to sleep about 8 hours each night. This is especially true for college students, since the deep sleep that occurs early in the night and the dream sleep that occurs later in the night are both required to learn. But the necessary amount of sleep varies from individual to individual. This is one case where quality is more important than quantity - if you feel alert and rested during the day, you've probably gotten enough sleep.

On the other hand, pulling all-nighters can interfere with your ability to learn new material. You can memorize facts during an all-night study session and recall the information through short-term memory for a test the next day, but you will most likely have to re-learn the material for a later cumulative exam.

What happens if I don't get enough sleep?

Sleep debts result from not getting enough sleep for several nights. Building up your sleep debt results in a decrease in daytime function. It can affect your physical health by weakening your immune system. It can affect your mental health by resulting in tension, irritability, depression, confusion, and generally lower life satisfaction. These mood changes may also result from irregular sleeping patterns, including sleeping in on the weekends.

It's well documented that sleep deprived students perform significantly worse than students who regularly get a good night's sleep. REM sleep is particularly important for consolidating newly learned information, and a large proportion of REM sleep occurs towards the end of the night. So studying most of the night for a test, and then sleeping only a few hours, decreases your ability to remember new information.

Not getting enough sleep also seriously impairs your ability to drive. Driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated - more than 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year result from traffic accidents involving sleepy drivers.

How can I get a better night's sleep?

Here are a few things you can do to make falling asleep easier and to make sleep more restful:

  • Relax! An alert mind may make it difficult to sleep. Try to slow the pace of your activities in the evening. Do some light reading or watch TV until you become drowsy, and then try to fall asleep naturally. If there's a lot on your mind, try writing down a detailed list and then forgetting about it.
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and nicotine, which are stimulants, and alcohol, which can cause unrestful sleep and frequent awakenings during the night.
  • Exercise and stay active. Twenty to 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity enhances deep sleep, but avoid exercising in the 6 hours before bedtime since it increases alertness.
  • Avoid long naps. Naps of less than 30 minutes can actually be quite refreshing during the naturally occurring mid-afternoon slump, but napping for much longer than this can make you drowsy and interfere with a good night's sleep.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. A regular sleep pattern reduces insomnia, and increases your alertness during the day.

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What about sleeping pills?

Sleeping pills may be prescribed by a doctor or bought over the counter. Prescription sleep aids can lead to dependence and become less effective if used for long periods of time. There are basically three types of prescription sleep aids:

  • The benzodiazapines are the traditional sleeping pills and their effects can last from 3 to 25 hours. These longer acting drugs can build up in your system, causing increased sedation, confusion or other problems.
  • The newer sleep aids such as Ambien and Sonata are similar to the benzodiazepines, but leave the system in 1 to 5 hours.
  • The tricyclic antidepressant drugs are helpful in inducing sleep and are less damaging when used for longer periods of time.

Many over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines to induce sleep and may result in residual drowsiness the next day. They are usually only effective for 2 or 3 nights.

What about natural sleep aids?

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps calm you down and is found in most protein-containing foods and dairy products. Adding honey or other carbohydrates helps facilitate the entry of tryptophan into the brain. B vitamins, especially B6, also help in the absorption of tryptophan. Calcium is also a natural calming agent and is found in all dairy products. Some herbal teas are especially calming, including chamomile, lemon verbena, lemon balm, passion flower, peppermint, and red clover.

Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body during the night. Studies have found that melatonin supplements may improve sleep for 5% of people with sleep disturbances. Valerian, chamomile, kavakava, California poppy, skullcap, St. John's Wort, and hops are some of the other herbal supplements being promoted as sleep aids, but they haven't undergone the rigorous testing required of prescription drugs. When using herbal sleep aids, it's important to use them as infrequently and in as low a dose as possible, and to check with your doctor for possible interactions with any medications you're taking.

Links You Can Use

WebMD's Sleep Disorders Health Center
This site has information from doctors and experts about sleep disorders and what you can do to ease them. Learn tips for sound sleep, facts about melatonin, causes of insomnia and more.

National Center on Sleep Disorders
This site has an interactive quiz for you to test what you know about sleep disorders. You can also read fact sheets on insomnia, narcolepsy, apnea and a variety of other sleep disorders.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
The web site of the national accrediting body for sleep disorders centers and laboratories contains reliable information on sleep, sleep disorders, treatments and services.

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