By: Yuan Yuan
As finals week approached, Samantha Peterson, a senior MU student, was getting very little sleep, sometimes pulling all-nighters before exams.
Although she was taking 12 credit hours this semester, seven hours less than the previous semester, she was busy working on her senior projects.
When sleeping less, she found it hard to concentrate and got stressed out easily. She also found that she ate less — the stress took away her appetite. “There’s always a correlation between sleeping and eating,” Peterson said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has declared insufficient sleep a public health problem, noting that 50 to 70 million U.S. adults have a sleep or wakefulness disorder. According to a 2016 CDC study, more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Missouri is the nation’s fifth most sleep deprived state, with 29.7 percent of adults having insufficient rest on no less than 14 of the past 30 days, according to CDC’s most recent sleep and sleep disorders fact sheet.
Insufficient sleep is very common among the college population. The American College Health Association’s Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment shows that less than 5 percent of the students said they got enough sleep to feel rested all 7 days of the previous week, 18.7 percent reported receiving lower exam or course grades due to sleep difficulties, and that 28.9 percent said sleep difficulties had been traumatic in the past year.
Also, chronic sleep issues were the second most common mental health concern, after anxiety, reported by Missouri college students, according to the 2014 Missouri College Health Behavior Survey research brief published by Partners in Prevention, a statewide coalition dedicated to creating healthy and safe college campuses in Missouri.
A common type of sleep disorders is insomnia, said Dennis K. Miller, an MU associate psychology professor who teaches an online class called Sleep and Sleep Disorders. Most people experience what’s called transient insomnia, or short-term insomnia, from time to time, he said.
We are all familiar with the feeling: The night before a big exam, we have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. “With a little behavioral change, transient insomnia goes away the next night, and things go back to normal,” Miller said.
Poor sleep hygiene: Have you noticed your bad habits?
The problem is, transient insomnia can lead to long-term insomnia, especially with poor sleep hygiene, or bad sleep behaviors, Miller said. In fact, the most common cause for sleep disorders is poor sleep hygiene, he said. Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices that are necessary to have normal, quality nighttime sleep and full daytime alertness, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Andrea Kimura, a health educator at the Health Promotion and Wellness Department of the MU Student Health Center, spends a lot of time talking about sleep hygiene. She has run a complimentary four-week Sleep Solutions class, once or twice per semester, since 2013. The class aims to teach students strategies and tips to identify and resolve sleep issues.
It’s usually a small class, which makes them feel comfortable sharing, Kimura said. In class, she discusses the science of sleep, terminology and sleep hygiene — providing them with tips like not having alcohol before bed, having a regular sleep/wake time, having a quiet environment or maybe having a white noise app with a stream or rain sound to help students fall asleep.
“And then individually they discuss what specific issues that they are dealing with,” to understand whether their problems are behavioral issues or environmental issues, and what they can change to get the quality sleep they need, Kimura said. Also, they are taught relaxation breathing and certain yoga poses to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous, which helps relax the body.
The body likes to go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day, Kimura said. But students often have different hours every day leaving the body to constantly adjust and find its rhythms. Students generally “have poor sleep hygiene with regards to a regular sleep/wake time,” she said. “That interferes with people’s quality of sleep and the amount of sleep they can get,” she said.
Miller recommended students trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
That recommendation was proven helpful to Kathryn Hardison, an MU freshman in journalism, who finally figured out a sleep schedule that works better for her after a semester’s struggle.
“Last semester, I used to go to bed at 2, get up right before classes, and rush to school in the mornings,” Hardison said. When not getting sufficient amount of sleep, she couldn’t concentrate, lost the desire to study, and sometimes got shaky and had trouble with her eyes.
Later she found out that going to bed earlier was important to her. Now, she usually goes to bed at 10 or 10:30 p.m. and sleeps for eight hours on both weekdays and weekends.
Another bad habit is that students like to use stimulants, especially caffeine from coffee or soda, to stay up late or keep themselves active during the day. Stimulants may have longer effects than people expect and can be associated with addiction, Miller said.
Luke Edward Mouton prefers eight hours’ sleep per day but only gets six. A freshman in psychology at MU, he is taking 17 credit hours this semester. He also works as a research assistant at a psychology lab.
He finds it hard to focus and keeps falling asleep during the day. He has had to prop himself up with coffee, he said, and he kept drinking more, starting with the Tall-sized cup at Starbucks and gradually moving to Grande and then to Venti.
During the finals week, if students are depriving themselves of sleep with stimulants, they may have a sleep deficit when finals are over, Miller said.
Things that get in the way of your sleep
For college students, poor sleep hygiene can also be associated closely with the use of electronic devices, Miller said.
One problem with electronics comes from the light, which goes into the eyes, stimulating the photo receptors in the retina which sends a message to the brain by saying “stay awake” because it is mistaken for day light, Kimura said.
Thus, the light may reset your body’s circadian rhythm, or biological clock, Miller said. The circadian rhythm is the reason “why you tend to get sleepy at the same time and get up at the same time every day,” he said.
“Let’s say it’s 2 in the morning, and you can’t sleep. You check your iPhone, and all of that light goes into your eyes, goes into part of your brain called hypothalamus and then resets your circadian rhythm,” Miller said. It tells your body: It’s time to get up, when it’s only 2 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. when you normally get up.
Another problem electronics bring is that “our devices get us cognitively engaged, so our brain is processing,” Kimura said. If we are on the computer or on the smartphone engaging in social media, sending emails, working on a paper, we are not allowing our brains to disengage from that work.
“So we need to have that cognitive step-down towards the end of the day,” Kimura said, “have that buffer from the time that you get off your electronic devices to the time that you go to bed.” The buffer allows an individual to relax, she said. Her suggestions to relax include taking a shower, reading for pleasure or listening to some relaxing music.
A suggestion would be, even if you can’t sleep or wake up in the middle of the night, “stay away from electronic devices,” Miller said.
In addition, stress is another main cause of sleep deprivation among college population, Kimura said. Stress interferes with people’s ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Vanessa Gao, a senior at MU, generally sleeps five to six hours on weekdays. Sometimes, stress keeps her from falling asleep or maintaining good sleep, and her head occasionally hurts during the day.
Sleep as a necessity rather than a luxury
Sleep, like food and water, is essential for life, according to the CDC.
When we go to sleep, the body does the cellular, tissue and organ repair, Kimura said.
Sleep deprivation may cause intense emotions such as paranoia and anger, inability to solve problems and difficulties in retaining information, Kimura said.
MU sophomore student Paige Cissell tends not to feel well when she doesn’t get enough sleep for a long period of time. She spends a lot of time on schoolwork as well as sorority-related events and meetings. “I also have to find time to socialize,” she said. But lack of sleep can cause her to feel fatigued and sick— sore throat, headaches, etc.
That’s just the beginning. The long-term effects of sleep loss and sleep disorders include an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke, according to a sleep disorders and sleep deprivation study by Institute of Medicine.
Laboratory research has found that short sleep duration results in metabolic changes that may be linked to obesity. Studies conducted in the community have also revealed an association between short sleep duration and excess body weight, according to CDC’s Division of Population Health. People with chronic sleep issues may gain weight because when they are tired, they crave carbohydrate, which is typically high-calorie, for immediate energy, Kimura said. For example, when you can’t concentrate and are falling asleep in class, you turn to sugary soda, she said.
Awareness among the general public and healthcare professionals is low, given the level of the burden from sleep issues, and the available human resources and capacity are insufficient to further develop the science and to diagnose and treat individuals with sleep disorders, according to the Institute of Medicine’s study.
More than half of college students are interested in receiving information on sleep difficulties from their schools, but only 21.7 percent of students actually received that information, according to the Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment.
The Institute of Medicine’s study also shows that the majority of people with sleep disorders are yet to be diagnosed.
Kimura said she can tell people about the importance of sufficient and quality sleep, but until they are ready to make that change, they won’t invest time or energy. “People are busy, and it depends on their readiness to change,” she said.
Another thing to keep in mind is people need different amounts of sleep, Miller said. “It’s important to find what you need; how much sleep helps you to be at your best the next day?”
The average sleep requirement for college students is well over eight hours, according to a Stanford University Sleep Research Center’s study. Miller suggests that students try an experiment to figure out the amount of sleep they need. “Perhaps at the start of the semester, go to bed at a regular time and see what time you normally wake up and how you feel the next day,” Miller said, “and you’ll learn whether you need a lot or less.”