Help for the sleep deprived
By Andrew J. Pulskamp
Alan Wasserman, an Ashland University senior, isn't necessarily on the prowl for money or power, although he is looking for something that everyone needs -- but not everyone gets enough of.
Wasserman just wants more sleep. But his somnolent fantasy is almost always just a fleeting dream.
"Bedtime is usually around two thirty or three and I'm up around eight thirty," he says. Those times are all a.m., which means Wasserman is catching about five and a half to six hours of shuteye a night. That's about two and a half hours shy of the National Sleep Foundation's recommendation for college-age students.
In fact the NSF conducted a recent poll gauging Americans' sleep habits and found that college students get the least amount of sleep when compared to other age groups. The NSF recommends eight hours of snoozing a night, yet most 18 to 29-year-olds get right around six hours and 48 minutes.
"I think with all the homework and studying and projects, things get compounded all at one time and sleep gets pushed by the wayside," offers Wasserman. He adds that he doesn't really get sleepy during class but when it comes time to buckle down and crack the books he finds himself nodding.
"You can't go without sleep. You can't be macho or magically learn to get by with less. Sleep is a biological need like food and water. You can't train to go without water and sleep is very much the same," advises Robert Clark Ph.D., the director of the Columbus Community Hospital Regional Sleep Disorder Center and a fellow with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Slumber is so integral to life, he says, that lab rats that are deprived of it over long periods of time actually die.
According to Clark a loss of sleep can affect a student in many ways. Memory is one of the first things to go when scholars skip snoozing. The inability to concentrate and clumsiness can also be counted among the symptoms of a sleep deprived student -- not exactly the qualities one looks for come test time.
When those midterms and finals roll around, Heather Campbell, a sophomore at Alfred State University in Alfred New York, says, "Without sleep, I might as well not even take a test." The urge to burn the midnight oil usually wanes with Campbell - she opts, instead, for sleep.
Not all students make the same choice though. "I have been known to pull an all-nighter," reveals Wasserman. Many students have been known to do likewise, but those all-nighters usually do more harm than good.
If it comes down to cramming or crashing, Clark has this advice. "You're better off going to bed. ...If you cram everything in your head the night before, it won't do you any good if you're too sleepy to remember where you put it."
Collegians, like many Americans, ignore the natural impulse to sleep. Officially, those impulses are called circadian rhythms, which regulate our natural sleep patterns. In this day and age of work, work, work - people of all ages often just trample right over the top of them.
Clark says, "We have an internal clock in our heads which regulates sleep. And sleep is greatly related to body temperature. In the cycle, the biggest drop in temperature is around five in the morning." That's fine for most students who get to sleep in until seven or eight, but there's another drop in temperature that tends to make humans want to nod off. "The second dip takes place in the afternoon hours. More intelligent societies take siestas at that time."
Clark says these times of the day can be real indicators as to whether or not someone is getting enough rest. Just because someone isn't sleepy upon awakening doesn't mean that he or she is necessarily getting enough time with the sandman. Clark advises, "For students who are doing worse in afternoon classes, that may be a tip-off that they're sleep deprived."
Although students may pay the piper in bad grades when rest is lost, such black marks could be the least of students' worries. Eighteen to 29-year-olds don't just rank among the most sleep deprived, they're also the most likely to end up in traffic accidents due to drowsiness.
In 1997, a 19-year-old student at the University of Alabama crashed into a Greyhound bus outside of Crawford, Alabama. He was killed along with all 21 passengers on the bus. Alabama State Troopers say they believe fatigue played a significant role in that accident.
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimate that at least 100,000 crashes a year and 1,500 deaths are the result of drowsiness and fatigue. And a North Carolina State Study found that 55 percent of all fall-asleep-behind-the-wheel crashes involved individuals under the age of 26.
Clark definitely sees drowsy drivers as a significant danger on the highways. He says, "This country is so concerned about drunk driving, but most of the population is sleep deprived and we could save a lot of lives if people were a bit more aware."
Being aware means students need to realize that they need more rest. Although the argument that college isn't always the easiest place to snuggle under the covers and enjoy a peaceful respite is valid.
"It's hard to go to bed before one or two in the morning," explains Mark Garza, a senior at Brown University. "Even if you do find time at night, you live in large commune-like environments. In the dorms there are a lot of people and they tend to want to talk and watch TV at all hours of the morning with disregard for most of the people around them."
Clark's response: "I want to say -- change the locks and lock the roommate out, but I think that realistically some college students may need to get ear plugs or anything to cut down on the sound." Clark also says collegians may want to get some curtains that block out light completely if they're forced to catch up on sleep in the daytime hours.
Here are some other steps that can be taken to help college students get a good night's rest.
An exercise regimen can improve health in more ways than one. Besides improving the heart, building muscle and burning fat, exercise can set the table for blissful slumber.Be careful when planning naps. Although they may help one catch up on lost sleep they can also prevent collegians from feeling sleepy at bedtime, thus throwing off the sleep cycle. Watch out for caffeine. Coffee, tea, some chocolate and some sodas consumed late at night can leave students feeling wired when they should be restful. Stay away from high protein foods like fish and chicken at night. They tend to make people more mentally alert. Good if it's test time, bad if it's bedtime.
Although dorms and studying take their toll on collegiate slumber so does another factor, which is easily preventable. "I think it's mostly due to partying. Most people don't get their stuff done because they've been spending too much time partying and then they have to stay up to pull all-nighters," offers Wasserman.
Garza agrees to some extent. He says it's not all partying; some of the lost downtime is due to plain old goofing off. "I say it's procrastination. It's people not really wanting to get their stuff done 'til it has to get done. Then it's late at night and the time that is sacrificed is sleep time."
The recent NSF poll does reflect this sentiment. The poll finds that 53 percent of young adults say they sleep less in order to get more done and 55 percent admit to postponing bedtime to watch TV or use the Internet. Students are burning the candle at both ends.
It seems college students may be best served by doing a little less of everything, especially the partying, if they want to get enough sleep.
Clark says the most important element in getting enough time in the sack is to not worry about falling asleep. "If you worry about falling asleep you'll never do it. Think of something boring," he advises. "The best thing in the world is learning good relaxation training. ...You can learn self hypnosis, breathing techniques or yoga and you can learn to bore yourself into oblivion."
Though many young people aren't getting enough sleep, not everyone in college is unhappy with their allotted dreamtime. Garza, who gets about nine hours a day -- including naps, says these college days and nights are a prime time for keeping Mr. Sandman busy. "I'm pretty much happy right now. I'm going to be wanting this kind of sleep when I go into the real world. I mean, I'm in bed right now."