Sleep habits in students not just in this campus, but nationwide, are very poor, as a survey of college students ages 18-25 reports. Many of us exhibit poor habits, such as difficulty falling asleep, staying up too late and not getting enough sleep, and as a result feeling drained of energy throughout their day, and midafternoon napping (Ram et al., 2010). That list must sound very familiar, huh? And I’m sure it’s got you as wound up as it’s gotten me in the past.
These bad habits are serious, because our neural networks associated with new learning are reactivated during sleep (Rasch & Born, 2006), and not sleeping consequently tanks performance in any memory or learning task (Bom, Rasch, & Gais, 2006). Sleeping literally repairs our brains, like a very soothing massage to each individual neuron, as they are often over worked throughout the daily grind.
But why does that matter, we can stay up forever and still get a decent grade in MATH 108 right? Sure, but not sleeping enough or having irregular schedules can be a serious detriment to more than just academics. Our memories also affect how well we will remember when to meet our friends for lunch, when a certain assignment was due in class, when and where an important Chapter meeting was, etc; and not sleeping affects whether or not we will remember these and function well in our personal lives.
Although the above examples are minor inconveniences if they arise once or twice, they can be damaging if chronic. These unhealthy sleep behaviors are present in patients diagnosed with some of the most prevalent psychological disorders in the US, such as depression and manic-depressive disorder (Dahl & Lewin, 2002). This is because we have much less energy- not just physically, but emotionally, to deal with stress if we have not slept well or long. Not sleeping well means not living well.
The best way to avoid these problems is to adopt a better sleeping regiment. This is no easy feat, as any of us who have had to cram for finals can attest to, but I’m here to help. Following my tips will be difficult the very first day, but each subsequent day will be easier than the last.
Start off your day waking up at a reasonable time, an hour or so earlier than you usually wake up if you have a habit of waking up at or after noon. If you have class early in the morning, try not to nap in the afternoon to “catch up,” as napping will prolong your sleeping woes. Eat a light, but healthy breakfast- nothing that will give you the Itis.
Throughout the day, in between your regular activities, try to use your free time productively. The brain regulates our sleeping patterns based on how we are being stimulated, with reduced activation of areas sending signals that will leave us tired, contrary to what you may intuitively think. Studies show that sleep is regulated by two distinct physiological mechanisms, the homeostatic and circadian processes. One regulates the levels of arousal in the body, while the other determines whether we remain awake or fall asleep based on those levels. In other words, we can control our sleep schedules based on how “excited” our brains are. The more novel an activity, the more resources we use to perform it, therefore the higher levels of arousal will tell our brain to stay awake. Like an alarm clock telling us when to go to sleep.
(Borbely, 1982; Czeisler et al., 1986; Moore, 1999)
So spend your hours on an activity that you have not done before, or have not for a long time. Hit the gym and exercise for an hour. If getting swole isn’t your thing, try out one of the yoga or dance classes offered on campus with a friend. On your next meal, try eating something you have never tasted before. If you have access to a kitchen, make it yourself! Borrow a friend’s guitar and teach yourself how to play a song. All this will give you more energy to continue on with your day, instead of leaving you lethargic as many mindless hours doing the same thing over and over again might.
Then, at the end of the long day, it’s best to enjoy a few minutes of light reading before heading into the wacky world of our dreams. However, most of us tend to relax at night by catching up on our favorite tv shows or browsing the internet for a while. The reason this is unhealthy is because those activities tend to involve artificial lighting. Artificial light sends melatonin, a hormone which keeps us awake, to our brains, the same way that the sun does during normal waking hours. So continued exposure to light even at night time is tricking our bodies into thinking we are still supposed to remain awake, which is why it’s best to be in the dark or very dim light in the moments before bed.
Okay, but if you NEED to watch the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother before the new one airs on Monday, go to your laptop’s settings and put the brightness to minimum, that way your brain knows it’s beddy bye time.
The first day of this routine will be the hardest, but if you fill your day with new, fun and challenging experiences, you will WANT to go to bed early. After a long day of exercising our brains, it can finally unwind in the hot, relaxing baths of our sleeping state. I hope these tips helped, and that you wake up tomorrow full of energy and as ready to tackle what’s ahead as I am.
Bom, J., Rasch, ?., & Gais, S. (2006). Sleep to remember. Neuroscientist, 12, 410-424. doi:10.1177/1073858406292647
Borbely, A. A. (1982). A two process model of sleep regulation. Human Neurobiology, 1, 195-204
Dahl, R. E., & Lewin, D. S. (2002). Pathways to adolescent health sleep regulation and behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31, 175-184. doi: 1 0. 1 0 1 6/S 1 054- 1 39X(02)00506-2
Ram, Saravanan; Seirawan, Hazem; Kumar, Satish K; S; Clark, Glenn T. Sleep and Breathing14.1 (Feb 2010): 63-70.
Peigneux, P., Laureys, S., & Fuchs, S. (2004). Are spatial memories strengthened in the human hippocampus during slow wave sleep? Neuron, 44, 535-545. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2004.10.007