There may be no greater common issue in the college population than a lack of sleep.
There are a host of reasons why college students struggle with sleep deprivation, but many, if not all, are resolvable and there are resources available to those who need help.
“In 2017, 24.3 percent of [Salt Lake Community College] students indicated that lack of sleep has impacted their academic performance in a negative way,” says Jessica Pettersson, health promotion manager at the SLCC Center for Health and Counseling.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults between the ages of 18 and 64. Anything less than this range can put you at risk for the detrimental effects of sleep loss.
It’s very easy to fall into a cycle of going to bed late and waking up early. Undoubtedly, nearly everyone has done this at one time or another. The reasons for this cycle vary from person to person due to individual circumstance, yet, almost all cases share common roots.
“It’s usually that life is getting in the way,” says Pettersson. “You’re balancing work, school, friends and family. All of that.”
Also varying from person to person, but similar in nature, are the effects of sleep loss. Everybody experiences it in different degrees and in different ways, but the body and mind will ultimately suffer common consequences.
Among those consequences, according to Pettersson, include:
- a weakened immune system, leaving you susceptible to illnesses;
- a change in appetite, leading to possible weight gain or loss;
- decreased athletic and general physical coordination;
- minor fluctuations in mood, making you grumpier, irritable, or generally stressed;
- increased mental health issues such as depression or anxiety;
- increased risk for automobile accidents due to fatigue;
- and a decrease in academic performance and lower GPA due to exhaustion.
Good sleep hygiene practices
The adverse effects of sleep loss are evident not only in the prior list, but in the common experience of students whom are probably familiar with them. Luckily, there are ways to remove oneself from this cycle and correct poor sleep habits.
“It’s called sleep hygiene, and that’s just basically establishing a sleep ritual,” says Pettersson.
Pettersson describes sleep rituals as activities that help your mind and body wind down at the end of the day in preparation for sleep.
First and foremost, when creating a sleep ritual, you’ll want to keep a regular rest and wake schedule, so the body gets accustomed to the pattern. You’ll want to maintain this sleep habit throughout the whole week, including the weekends. Trying to cram in extra sleep on the weekend may only throw off your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that triggers many of your body’s functions.
If at all possible, avoid staying up late to study or do homework with the assumption of maximizing productivity.
“Some students rely on staying up most of the night to study, pulling an all-nighter and cramming last minute and that can actually be counter-productive. The very qualities you need to maximize in order to do well on tests such as recollection, concentration, alertness, those are all decreased when you’re sleep deprived,” says Pettersson.
To help establish this sleep schedule, you can try various relaxing activities to calm you down before bed such as taking a warm shower, reading a book, or listening to relaxing music. It’s advised that you stay off of your phone or other devices before bed as that can stimulate or distract you, making it harder to get or stay asleep.
Caffeine can interfere with your sleep if taken anywhere from three to six hours before you go to bed. Alcohol may seemingly make it easier to fall asleep, but the quality of sleep that you get will generally be poor. And eating a big meal before your bedtime may upset your stomach and keep you awake.
Your sleep environment should be dark, quiet, cool and comfortable, according to Pettersson. You should be using a comfortable mattress and pillows and make sure the room has very little light. Additionally, you want a sleep space to be used only for sleep, not homework or other stressful activities. The bed should be associated only with sleep.
When to seek medical attention
Many of these suggestions are going to work differently for individual students. Some may have hectic work schedules and can’t maintain a consistent sleep pattern, some may not have the money to buy a mattress that fits their comfort, and some may simply have a more medical cause for losing sleep.
If attempts to relax before bed and maintain sleep hygiene fail, you may think about trying a sleep aid. Whether melatonin, over-the-counter brands, or more serious sleep aids, you’d want to consult a doctor first.
“If you’re having issues sleeping, you have to figure out if its physical or mental, so you’d want to figure out with your doctor what’s causing you not to sleep well. Maybe a change in your diet can help with that, maybe a counselor can help. I think that’s really important before you use any sleep aid,” says Pettersson.
For help determining the cause of those issues, SLCC students can go to the Center for Health and Counseling, located at the Taylorsville Redwood, South City and Jordan campuses. Petterson says the center has three main areas that students can use to address sleep issues.
“The first [area] is our medical clinic, so we can do anything a doctor’s office can do; we say we do everything short of surgery. So, we have our nurse practitioner here and you can meet with her to figure out why you’re not sleeping, and she can diagnose if its nutrition issues or if you may need to try melatonin or something like that.
“We also have counseling. We have licensed clinical social workers and anxiety and depression are pretty prevalent among the college population and it can affect your sleep so if you need to come and talk to somebody, we do deal with lack of sleep or maybe the [symptoms arising from or causing a lack of sleep].
“We also have massage [services] here as well. Massage is really good for relaxing the body, getting rid of aches and pains that might be causing physical discomfort and preventing you from getting sleep and relaxation.
“So, you have a couple of different options and we all work together in an integrated health system to try to figure out what students need.”