The struggles of sleepless students

Go to bed at 3 a.m. last night? Don’t make a habit of it, or you’ll do more damage than you think

Not getting enough sleep will make you cranky, but your ability to cope with stress and problem solve will also worsen.
Not getting enough sleep will make you cranky, but your ability to cope with stress and problem solve will also worsen.

It’s early morning, and I’m up and at ‘em for my 8:30 a.m. class. I got approximately four and a half hours of sleep last night. Of course, I am to blame: I napped for two hours the day before and drank coffee in the evening, among other sleep-destructing activities.

(I managed to use my wired state in a productive manner, though—my nails are freshly painted and my sock drawer is impeccable).

Sleep deprivation isn’t new to me, though. I always convince myself I’ll catch up on sleep but of course it never happens and I’m in a permanent zombified state. Sound familiar? You’re probably not alone. University is hardly an environment that allows one to sleep like a baby every night; with essays to be written and nights at the Spot to be had, it’s a wonder us students get any sleep at all.

Lee Fisher-Goodchild, coordinator of health education and health promotion programs at Queen’s, said students will often ask advice about sleep at health promotion services and clinics.

“More often the problem is just ... not making enough time in the day to have time for sleep to satisfy the body’s need,” she said. “It’s tied up with stress and time management.”

Since students’ lives are so busy, it can be easy for sleep to be the first thing they cut, she said.

“If you do your work close to a deadline, sometimes it takes longer than you think it will ... Sometimes people just have so much on their plate.”

Sleep deprivation will eventually affect your ability to function during many activities, she said.

“Your brain isn’t functioning as well as it normally could. Things take a lot more effort to do.” Fisher-Goodchild said studies have shown that your ability to function with little sleep is comparable to functioning at a lower IQ level, and that sleep deprived people often report being less happy and less motivated.

“It’s much more easy to feel really overwhelmed and to become stressed out,” she said, because your ability to think things through, plan and problem solve is impaired.

It’s also easier to make simple mistakes, as your mind will be more likely to wander, she said.

If you tend to pull an all-nighter and get sick soon after, this may not be a coincidence, said Fisher-Goodchild.

“When you’re not getting enough sleep your immune system doesn’t work as well,” she said, adding that sleep allows the body time to repair itself.

She said it’s also harder to eat well when you continually skimp on sleep.

“When people don’t get enough sleep they tend to crave carbohydrates ... your body’s craving more energy—foods that are metabolised really quickly,” she said.

“They spike your blood sugar. You might get a spurt of energy, but it doesn’t last.”

If you’re caught in a cycle of going to bed at 2 a.m., it’s possible to reset your body clock, she said, if you go to bed a little bit earlier each night until your body adjusts.

“You might need to do it in 15 minute increments. If you do it overnight you’ll just lie there,” she said. “If you can back it up slowly it will be easier to do.”

Fisher-Goodchild said it’s also helpful to find out how much sleep you need in a night; it varies for everybody.

Go to sleep before a day that you don’t need to be up for a certain time and keep track of how long you slept, she said. “How long does it take to wake up and feel refreshed?”

Besides adjusting your schedule, remembering some simple rules can greatly improve sleep.

“Make sure your bed is comfortable,” she said. “Make sure your room is dark; some people are really light sensitive.

“Having a regular bedtime and regular wake time is one of the best things people can do,” she said, adding that taking time for certain relaxing activities, such as taking a bath or shower, can help you discern from daytime and bedtime.

“In the long term it trains your body that it’s time for sleep,” Fisher-Goodchild said, adding that it’s also important to avoid caffeine around seven hours before bed, as caffeine is a stimulant.

“Watch alcohol consumption

—it can help you fall asleep but it can actually disrupt your sleep schedule,” she said. “You spend less time in deep sleep.”

You should also avoid eating too much or working out before bed, she said, because it can take awhile to settle back down.

Ultimately, although sleep may seem like the easiest activity to put off, students should not underestimate how much it helps, she said.

“Getting enough sleep helps you be your best and it helps you do everything better ... it’s so important to so many areas of function.”

Sarah Pillersdorf, ArtSci ’13, said student life definitely affects her ability to get a good night’s sleep.

She said she will get as little as six hours a night on a bad day to as much as nine hours a night on a good day.

“When I sleep, I find I’m restless; I always toss and turn. I usually end up going to bed late because I always have so much work,” she said, adding that the increase in the amount of reading she has to do for school takes up a lot of time.

Transitioning to a house from residence is another added factor, she said.

“It’s also different living in a house, there’s a lot more responsibility. That would take out time that I may have had last year.”

Being able to relax for 20-30 minutes before going to bed helps, she said.

“I try to read a magazine or book ... something outside of school.”

Judith Davidson, assistant professor (adjunct) in the department of psychology, said many students don’t realize what they do to their bodies by not getting enough sleep.

“Students often think that sleep is ‘optional’ and that it’s easy to do without it. This is far from the truth,” she told the Journal in an e-mail.

Although there have been many past studies on insomnia, she said today there are more and more studies focusing on “sleep restriction”—what happens when people continually don’t get a full night of sleep.

“These studies mimic the sleep loss that happens more often [than total sleep deprivation] in real life,” she said. “Getting too little sleep can [negatively] affect glucose metabolism and is believed to increase risk of obesity and diabetes.”

During a healthy night of sleep, people will experience four cycles, including light, deep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, she said.

“The average duration of sleep in young adults is about eight but that’s just an average.” Napping, for no more than an hour, will not harm people’s ability to get these eight hours, she said.

“We are biologically predisposed to nap in the afternoon,” she said. “Naps in the afternoon are unlikely to negatively affect night-time sleep.”

So what happens if you slip up and have to stay up to finish an essay or have major jet lag?

“The best way to keep your circadian rhythm (24-hour internal rhythm) of sleep and wakefulness on track is to get up at the same time each morning regardless of how much or how little sleep you got,” Davidson said, adding that the key to achieving a solid sleep schedule is to recognize sleep as a part of your schedule.

“Allow time for sleep. Don’t underestimate the value of a good sleep to how you feel the next day,” she said. “Your mood, ability to concentrate and how you feel physically are so much better with good sleep.”

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