Ditching the hay: Downsides to shunning shut-eye

by Beacon Staff • October 11, 2006

College students are notorious for their bad sleeping habits and disorganized lifestyles. With classes, clubs, social gatherings and homework, it's hard to squeeze in the eight to nine hours of sleep that are necessary for the body and the brain to function normally.

Most students survive with five to six hours of sleep and fight their need to rest by consuming coffee and energy drinks.

"I tend to not sleep anymore, partially because of homework, and partially because I find more interesting things to do," said Ruth Bosco, a freshman media production major.

Most college students think of sleep as just another task in their busy schedules. Before you try to do this for four years in a row, however, take a look at how much pressure you're putting on your body every time you hit the sheets late.

The human body has something called the "circadian rhythm," its own biological clock which is usually in sync with light patterns. It helps the body realize when it's light and when it's dark outside.

Circadian clocks work fine on most people, but in those who work night shifts and in college students, they tend to be several hours ahead or behind. So when you go to bed at two a.m., you may fall asleep instantly, but when you wake up at eight, your circadian clock might still be in its night mode, so you will still feel sleepy.

Thanks to long breaks in between classes, some students feel they can catch up on sleep during the day by napping for an hour or two.

"Sometimes I sleep after my morning classes, but I never feel rested," said James Sowden, a freshman marketing major.

To wake up with a clear mind, the body needs to go through the normal sleep cycle several times during the night.

A sleep cycle is made up five stages all together. The first four stages take an average of 90 minutes; they help the body relax and prepare it for the deepest stage of the sleep cycle, the Rapid Eye Movement stage.

Also known as REM, this stage lasts an average of 15 minutes and helps the brain sort out all the information we receive from outside stimuli during the day.

Important information is stored in the long-term memory, while other thoughts are processed as dreams.

By depriving yourself of sleep, then napping at random hours, your body takes less time to go through the first four stages of sleep and spends more time on REM. This causes a disoriented feeling and grogginess because you didn't spend enough time on each individual stage.

According to the National Sleep Foundation's (NSF) Web site, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine also interfere greatly in the body's ability to fall and stay asleep.

While it may feel as if drinking alcohol makes you drowsy, it actually makes sleeping patterns irregular because it slows down the activity of the brain unnaturally.

Caffeine and nicotine act as stimulants and make falling asleep difficult, especially if you've been smoking or drinking caffeinated drinks four to six hours before going to bed.

Lack of sleep also weakens the immune system and makes you more prone to catching viral infections, which seem to spread at high speed in the closed quarters of on-campus housing. It also puts you at greater risk of high blood pressure and obesity.

But it is not always the college student's fault that he or she doesn't get enough sleep. Some factors that interfere with sleeping habits can be physiological or psychological.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), 40 percent of all women will experience sleep-related problems sometime during her life.

That's 10 percent more than all men.

Stress is another reason students find themselves tossing and turning in bed late at night.

NSF explains that increased levels of the main stress hormone, cortisol, during the night will hinder the brain and body from falling asleep. But it is hard not to feel stressed out when you know you have papers and exams waiting for you the next morning.

NSF also suggests that you only use your bedroom for sleep and sex, but this can be rather difficult in college dorm rooms, where students do homework, hang out and sleep not only in the same room, but usually on the same side of it, too.

It's also difficult to create regular sleeping patterns when you share your room with someone else who might have different habits from you.

"My sleeping habits changed significantly [when I came to college]," said Erica Templeman, a sophomore marketing communications major. "My first class was at 10 a.m. so I stayed up until two every night. I socialized on the weekends, but weeknights were devoted to homework. One of my roommates didn't sleep as much. She had way more sex, so I was often kicked out of the room for several hours."

Kevin McCaul, a freshman radio production major, has also learned the challenges of sharing his room with his nocturnal roommate. Their different schedules mean that even when McCaul tries to sleep, he is awakened by his roommate when he comes in late at night.

McCaul said that his roommate "goes to bed late, and that bothers me because he turns the lights on when he comes in the room."

But not all hope is lost for the tired college kid with bags under his eyes.

There are some things you can do in order to make the best out of the few hours of sleep you get.

AASM suggests you minimize all light and sound before going to bed so that you're not distracted. Sleep in comfortable clothes and avoid sleeping anywhere but in the bedroom.

If you can't fall asleep, don't get frustrated and stare at the clock. Instead, get up and do something else for a while until you feel tired again.

Avoid napping during the daytime if you feel you cannot wake up after less than one hour, and never nap after 3 p.m. And while light exercise before going to bed will help you get better sleep, overdoing it stimulates the body.