Good night’s sleep easier said than done

“I’m going to have to pull an all-nighter tonight.” College students often hear this statement from friends, or even utter it themselves during crunch time in the semester. College students are notorious for having strange sleeping patterns and surviving on a very small amount of sleep. Many just shrug off the problem as a part of college life, but sleep deprivation can greatly affect overall health and performance.

The amount of sleep that each person needs is biologically determined and differs from person to person. There are a few exceptional people who really only need three or four hours a night. However, most adults (including young adults) need eight to ten hours a night. In a recent study, subjects were not made aware of the time and were allowed to sleep whenever and for as long as they chose. The conclusion found that subjects slept an average of 10.3 hours a day. Interestingly, that is the same amount of time that monkeys and apes choose to sleep in nature. Before Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in 1913, adults averaged about 9 hours of sleep a night. Today, the average is 7.5 hours.

Even knowing what the correct amount of sleep is, some claim to have “trained” themselves to get by on less sleep. While a person can “train” himself to sleep less, it is not possible to train yourself to need less sleep. Sleeping less than the needed amount builds up what is known as a sleep debt. If this debt gets high enough, the body goes into survival mode and tries desperately to get sleep, causing people to fall asleep in dangerous situations, such as while driving. Sleep deprivation can also make people slow to respond, irritable and more vulnerable to illness.

There are also more familiar and less dangerous situations in which people fall asleep, such as during studying or in class. Many people attribute falling asleep in class to boredom or an overly comfortable chair, while the real cause is more likely sleep deprivation. Health writer Jane Brody has said, “If you get sleepy when you are bored or sitting quietly in a warm or dark room, or trying to read or listen to a lecture, you are sleep deprived.” In other words, if students got enough sleep, they would never fall asleep in class.

So how does one make sure to get enough sleep? First, sleep regular hours. Sleep at night and get up at the same time each day. Marcus Robinson ’00 said, “I generally go to bed around 11 p.m. and get up around 7 a.m. every day of the school week.” However, in college, people like Marcus are the exception, not the rule. Alex Meriwether ’02 for example, had a very strange sleeping pattern during Winter Study, staying awake nearly the whole night and sleeping during the day.

Why does it matter which hours of the day one sleeps as long as one sleeps enough? Human beings are diurnal creatures, meaning that we are supposed to be asleep at night and active during the day. Although it is possible to get accustomed to being nocturnal, it is essentially fighting biology and is not as effective as sleeping at night.

Many are not aware that human biorhythms call for sleep at another time of the day – between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the afternoon. In many countries, this is naptime, but not in America. Our society allows little time for napping.

College life allows for afternoon naps more than most careers do. If a nap is available, it is wise to take it. Shorter naps tend to work better; it is the restful nonREM sleep that is rejuvenative. By sleeping longer than about 20 minutes, a person risks falling into rapid eye movement, or REM dream cycle, making for a tired feeling upon awakening. Erin Sullivan ’02 said, “I take a nap just about every day – sometimes long, sometimes short. On the worst days I take up to three or four.”

Also, a nap before an all-nighter is more effective than a catch-up nap afterwards. Although naps are a healthy way to get in some of that precious sleep time, another common idea that one can catch up on sleep on the weekends is simply not true. It is critical to get enough sleep every night.

If it seems impossible to fall asleep within a half an hour of getting into to bed, the best choice is to get up. The body is just not ready for sleep yet. It may also helpful to get a presleep, relaxing routine going. In addition, completing homework out of the room can create an easier sleep environment. Another way to be sure to get good sleep is to avoid consuming known stimulants close to bedtime, such as readily available coffee, soda, or caffeine gum.

On a final note, Trent University Psychology professor Carlyle Smith recently conducted an experiment in which she concluded that if students study hard all week and then party hard on the weekend, they may lose as much as 30 percent of the knowledge they gained that week. The reason is that the sleep deprivation on the weekend nights affects one’s ability to retain knowledge. So if finals are coming up, maybe late night parties are not the best idea.

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