By Shannon Sigafoos

Do you treat sleep as more of a nuisance than a necessity? It goes without saying that you’re not alone; in an academic environment, lack of sleep can be a common occurrence as we all get through the day to day in a busy and competitive environment. As we eventually learn, however, making a habit of missing a few hours of rest adds up—and no amount of caffeine can help us balance our busy schedules in a productive way.

The National Sleep Foundation hosts its annual Sleep Awareness Week, designed to celebrate sleep health and encourage the public to prioritize sleep to improve overall health and well-being, from March 8–14.  And research shows that college campuses are where there needs to be more awareness of the health and performance implications of sleep. 

“I look upon sleep as being part of the four main pillars of health, and unfortunately, being in an academic environment, the first pillar that typically gets kicked out is sleep,” says Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, director of health services at Bailey Health Center. “You just can’t be emotionally or physically healthy or do well in the classroom if you are not getting adequate sleep. When I have these conversations with students about sleep, we go through a long list of important things to pay attention to, to maximize their ability to have good sleep hygiene.”

Tops among those recommendations is keeping your mobile device across the room or out of reach during sleeping hours. Setting consistent sleeping and wakeup hours, exercising every day, limiting alcohol intake, and avoiding eating in the several hours before sleep are also part of the conversations that Goldstein has with patients who have difficulty sleeping. 

There is also the reality that many people who suffer from sleep deprivation are anxious, depressed, or dealing with mental health issues that contribute to all-night tossing and turning. 

“Sleeping problems are often identified in many of the students we see for stress, anxiety and depression,” confirms Asmita Pendse, staff psychologist at the Counseling Center. “When I meet someone for the first time, I am always looking for answers to these questions – how are you sleeping, do you feel rested in the morning? More often than not, the answer will be ‘not well,’ but they don’t see the association between them. There’s a strong association with anxiety, depression and sleep.”

Asmita Pendse stands on campus.

Asmita Pendse, staff psychologist in the Counseling Center, advises students on the importance of sleep.

Lack of sleep also can lead to a myriad of other health issues including those that many of us may not be aware we are at risk for. According to a recent report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sleep deprivation can impact immune system function, heart and lung function, hormonal fluctuations linked to obesity, balance and coordination, mood changes, and memory issues. 

In other words, staying up all night to get work done—a commonplace practice on college campuses—rarely produces sought-after results. 

“If you can’t fall asleep, what is it that you’re doing?” asks Goldstein. “Are you reaching for a gadget? Are you getting frustrated and anxious that you can’t sleep? Then we begin to associate the bed with the anxiety of not sleeping. If you can’t fall asleep in 30 to 45 minutes, get up and read something light to tire your brain out. Don’t sit in bed and ruminate and become anxious over not sleeping.” 

“What are your priorities? Are you making sleep one of those priorities?” Pendse adds. “A lot of people don’t realize that depriving themselves of sleep might be working for them right now, but it won’t always work in the future. We have to practice time management skills and ask ourselves if there are ways that we could manage our time better.” 

Many of us also fall into the habit of staying up late on weeknights and trying to make up for it by sleeping in on weekends. When you wake up at a time that is later than your internal body clock expects, you are essentially “resetting the clock”—and then your body is telling itself that it is trying to get used to a new routine. 

Getting a good night’s sleep may seem like an impossible goal when you have a lot on your plate or if you tend to be up all night tossing and turning, but you have more control over the quality of your sleep than you realize. Here are a few tips and tricks from Goldstein and Pendse that you can add to your daily routine: 

  1. Regulate your environment: There are certain challenges that exist in college that you may not have had at home, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t make adjustments to control that environment. “Is the temperature okay? Is the noise level okay?” Goldstein asks. “It varies with each person, and there are techniques that we encourage students to explore, such as using white noise to block out sound or apps that help with meditation or breathing exercises.” 
  2. Avoid alcohol: “Many people think that alcohol makes them sleepy, but it really impairs your highest quality of sleep, which is your REM sleep,” says Goldstein. “Even if you fall asleep quickly, alcohol actually wakes you up a few hours later, which reduces your quality of sleep.” In the same vein, this is why it also is best to avoid caffeinated beverages and snacks in the hours before bed.
  3. Don’t use the bed as a work zone (or for screen time): “A lot of people tend to take their laptop, tablet or device with them to bed—and then they associate the bed with stress,” says Pendse. “Break that association by only using the bed for sleeping. And if you put on the television to help you fall asleep, the signal you get is that it’s ‘helping right now’-$:-5326—but if you look at the quality of sleep you get overall, it’s not helping.” 
  4. Get regular exercise and stay hydrated: “Regular exercise during daylight hours promotes better sleep. Even light physical activity is better than none,” says Pendse. “Also, are you drinking enough water? That’s something very simple that both students and professionals alike don’t think of. Being dehydrated can also make you feel tired. I carry my water bottle with me everywhere.” 

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