Research shows that healthy sleep patterns enhance learning as well as overall mental and physical health. Lack of sleep, however, is a common concern for college students, who can feel pressure from academics and campus organizations. Excessive stress, anxiety, and worry make it difficult to get to sleep. The negative effects of a lack of sleep are often underestimated; this deficiency can:
- Have a negative effect on relationships, work, and general well-being
- Lead to irritability, impatience, and depression
REM, which stands for the rapid eye movement sleep cycle, makes up 25 percent of our sleep time and is when dreams occur. Normal sleep moves through non-REM to REM every 90 minutes or so. Similarly, roughly every 90 minutes there is a window of time during which a person feels tired and can fall asleep. If that window is missed, it may be difficult to fall asleep until the next one cycles around. Keep this in mind next time you want to stay awake a little longer to read one more chapter or finish that movie. Daydreaming and poor concentration are evident during this window.
When to Be Concerned
Do you wake up during the night? Don’t worry, it’s normal, and you will fall asleep again. Some people may wake up as many as 15 times in one night. While occasional restlessness is not unusual, consistent difficulty falling asleep or waking up feeling unrested can be signs of insomnia, which is characterized by:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Frequent waking and difficulty falling asleep again
- Getting up too early in the morning
- Waking up not feeling rested
Keep in mind that insomnia is not defined by the number of hours you sleep a night. Most people need 7-8 hours of sleep a night; if you are still feeling sleepy during the day, you are not getting enough rest.
Tips for Sleeping Better
- Develop a consistent sleep pattern. When you make a point of waking up at the same time every day, you will soon find you wake up naturally and without an alarm clock. Go to bed the same day you got up—which means you should be in bed before midnight. If you sleep on a schedule that allows you to be awake by early morning, you’ll perform better. On weekends, try not to extend your wake hours by more than a couple of hours; the more off schedule you get, that harder it will be to get back on.
- Exercise in the late afternoon or early evening. Exercise increases the amount of non-REM sleep, so you should not work out less than two hours before bed.
- Cease meaningful activity (e.g., homework and paying bills) at least 30-60 minutes before sleep.
- Reduce caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake late in the day. Food and drinks with caffeine (e.g., chocolate, soda, tea, and coffee) may induce sleep initially, but tolerance can occur and a mini-withdrawal can cause wakefulness during the night. Other drugs, including nicotine, may disturb your natural biological rhythm and cause sleep to become less refreshing.
- Relax before bed. Take time to stretch, take a warm shower or bath, meditate, read, or engage in another activity that gets you relaxed. You can also have a light snack (dairy or carbohydrates; avoid sugars).
- Make your sleeping place comfortable. It should be quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature. If it’s too bright, use a sleep mask; if noise is a problem, use a fan, earplugs, or a white noise machine. Remember, your bed is for sleeping—don’t use it for other activities like working, watching TV, or talking on the phone.
- Leave a pad of paper and pen next to your bed. Make a to-do list before you fall asleep so those things don’t keep you up worrying. If you wake up thinking of a new idea or something you forgot to do, write it down. This will help you let go of those thoughts and fall asleep easier.
- If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, stop trying. Instead, leave the room and do something relaxing like reading until you feel sleepy.
- Do not take naps. When you feel sleepy, get up and do something. This will increase the flow of oxygen to your brain and help you to be alert. If you do need to nap, sleep for no more than 30 minutes and try to do so earlier in the day, as long naps can contribute to difficulty sleeping the next night.
- Keep clocks out of sight. Seeing the time can cause more anxiety when you are trying to fall asleep. Set the alarm and turn the clock face away from you.
- Vitamins in the B group (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12) are beneficial in stress management, aid in producing energy, maintaining healthy nerves, and promoting regular sleep patterns.
- Becoming agitated or anxious uses up more B vitamins through use of energy.
- Deficiencies of vitamin B can lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue, and irritability.
- Folic acid helps with fatigue and insomnia. Good sources of folic acid are meats, sprouts, sunflower seeds, leafy green vegetables, and orange juice.
- Pantothenic acid helps with fatigue and insomnia.
- B6 is used to convert tryptophan to serotonin. It can be found in animal protein foods, bananas, salmon, broccoli, and sunflower seeds. Deficiencies in B6 lead to irritability.
- B12 helps with fatigue, insomnia, and depression. It is found in eggs, meat, poultry, shellfish, milk, and milk products.
Services at WPI
If you continue to have difficulty sleeping despite your efforts, consider getting help. Call the SDCC at 508-831-5540 and make an appointment. A counselor can work with you to figure out what is keeping you awake at night and help you develop coping strategies for a peaceful night’s sleep.
If all else fails, medication may be required—though it should be used very carefully. Long-term use of sleep aids may actually disrupt sleep further. As always, consult with a healthcare professional before you use any medication or herbal supplement. Referrals can be made by the SDCC. Other professional resources include WPI Health Services and your primary care physician.
- Power Sleep by James B. Maas
- The Promise of Sleep by William C. Dement
We have included links to other websites and we encourage students to evaluate the materials and to use what they find to be helpful. Please keep in mind that WPI cannot assume responsibility for information on other websites.
Information on the web is not intended as a substitute for assistance from the SDCC. For personal assistance, WPI students should contact the SDCC at 508-831-5540 to schedule an appointment with one of our professional staff members.