Contributed by C. Claire Armagnac, B.A.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed titled “Turn Your Zzz’s Into A’s” got me thinking about how sleep affects the daily lives of college students. Many Americans, especially college students, do not get enough sleep due to stress and busy schedules, but sleep problems are an international phenomenon. For example, a 2002 study involving 10 countries showed that 32% of the study participants in Belgium, and 16% of the participants in Germany, reported that they frequently do not sleep well. In the U.S., things aren’t much better, with a 2009 poll by the National Sleep Foundation showing that Americans average 6.7 hours of sleep per night on weeknights, and data from the past 10 years show that the number of people who average less than 6 hours of sleep per night is steadily increasing. The primary reasons for decreased sleep levels are stress, general anxiety, and devices like smart phones and iPads that allow us to be connected and active at all hours of the day.
For college students, stress and distractions are compounded by term papers, exams, and dorm living. Many dorms have “quiet hours” to allow students to study and sleep, but in the dorms at my school the hours were rarely observed, and students were resigned to studying in 24-hour computer labs and lounges. The fact that computer labs and other venues were open 24/7 often made me feel as though I should have been working or socializing 24/7, which is very risky. Some students brag about the amount of sleep they don’t get, claiming to have aced an exam or partied all night on 2 or 3 hours of sleep. These students may appear to have superhuman energy abilities, but the truth is that long-term sleep deprivation is dangerous to everyone’s health.
Sleep deprivation impacts many areas of our daily lives, including our ability to drive. A study conducted in 2000 showed that driving after staying awake for 17 to 19 hours can be as dangerous as driving with a 0.05 BAC (blood alcohol content) level. Sleep deprivation can also lead us to consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine, which leads to dehydration. Plus, sleep deprivation can also change the way we eat, which can lead to obesity because our bodies crave high-energy foods that are easy to digest (such as refined flour and simple carbohydrates that give us a short boost of energy but leave us hungry again in a short amount of time) when we are tired. Exercise plans are often abandoned when students don’t have enough time to sleep. A lack of exercise combined with lack of sleep and a poor diet leads to a lifestyle that isn’t safe or sustainable over a long period of time.
The good news is that it’s never too late to improve your sleep habits, and summer may be the perfect time to do so. Living away from school may provide a quieter environment that is more conducive to sleep, and the absence of homework and tests leads to lower stress levels for many students as well. Summer is often less regimented than school, but for better health it is still important to set a regular bedtime, perhaps by telling yourself that you will go to bed after a favorite show every night or that you will always go to bed 2 hours after getting home from work.
Summer is also a great time to renew your dedication to an exercise program or to go to a local gym and try a fitness class that you did not have time for during school. The price of a gym membership varies by region, but in my town the YMCA offers summer memberships for young adults that cost about $20 per month and include unlimited fitness classes. Summer’s warmer weather also makes it easier to exercise outdoors and play games, such as volleyball and baseball with friends or with a town league. And, with all the extra sleep you’ll be getting, you’ll actually have the energy to do so!
Everyone is busy and stress has become the norm in many of our lives, but I can tell you from personal experience that allocating at least 7 hours per night for sleep has improved my health as well as my mood. Science and common sense both suggest getting more sleep, so please try to do it if you can. Good luck, and happy sleeping!
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