Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sleep: Protecting An Essential Life Rhythm

Many college students do not sleep well.  In fact, the typical student pattern can best be described as chaotic.  In many cases these patterns exacerbate and even trigger poor mental health outcomes.  Bipolar and other mood disorders, for example, are known to be sensitive to inadequate or unhealthy sleep rhythms.  Sometimes sleep problems are caused by factors outside their direct control, such as loud roommates, a medical condition, or living near a train track.  In these circumstances vulnerable students should consider working toward changes in their health and living situations, admittedly not always an easy thing to do.  More often than not, however, a student's sleeping problem is caused by poor "sleep hygiene", or poor choices about sleep that are within their ability to alter.

Due to their youth and general level of energy and vitality, traditional-aged students may grossly underestimate their ability to cope with chaotic life rhythms.  The average 20-year old can in fact rebound from sleep deprivation better than, say, the average 40-year old.  But this subjective feeling may mask an underlying deterioration which may be occurring, even at the cellular level.  So, students can pull off all-nighters for a time, but that habit is soon to catch up with them in the form of worsening mood, impaired ability to focus and concentrate, and diminished academic or athletic performance.

One simple set of guidelines to follow: pick and stick to a regular, reasonable rise time, avoid daytime naps, and use the bed only for sleep and other relaxing activity.  Seven to nine hours of nighttime sleep may be ideal.  But there are other tips which may be helpful.

Here is a list of practices conducive to good sleep, adapted from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (2002):

  • Try to sleep only when you are drowsy.
  • If you are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, leave your bedroom and engage in a quiet activity elsewhere.  Do not permit yourself to fall asleep outside the bedroom.  Return to bed when - and only when - you are sleepy.  Repeat this process of often as necessary throughout the night.
  • Maintain a regular arise time, even on days off work and on weekends.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and relaxing activity.
  • Avoid napping during the daytime.  If daytime sleepiness becomes overwhelming, limit nap time to a single nap of less than one hour, no later than 3 pm.
  • Distract your mind.  Lying in bed unable to sleep and frustrated needs to be avoided.  Try reading or watching a videotape or listening to books on tape.  It may be necessary to go into another room to do these.
  • Avoid caffeine within four to six hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid the use of nicotine close to bedtime or during the night.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages within four to six hours of bedtime.
  • While a light snack before bedtime can help promote sound sleep, avoid large meals.
  • Avoid strenuous exercise within six hours of bedtime.
  • Minimize light, noise, and extremes in temperature in the bedroom.