Sleep deprivation soars among college students

It’s like the saying goes. When you come to college, time permits only two out of the three activities: sleep, study or a social life. Sleep, according to researchers, is clearly taking the back burner among college students.

In a recent study conducted at the University of St. Thomas in Minn. and released by the Journal of Adolescent Health, 70 percent of college students receive less than the eight recommended hours of sleep, choosing to engage in other activities. Parties, late night study sessions or job-related obligations are taking precedence and leaving less time for the mandatory sleep needed for optimal performance.

“It seems impossible to juggle a social life and academics and simultaneously get enough sleep,” said sophomore English and Spanish double major Abigail Mendoza. “We spend all day in class, or at internships or at our jobs; the only time left to be productive is in the middle of the night.”

Stress related factors additionally play a large role in college student sleep deprivation. The study, conducted on 1,125 students, found that 68 percent have trouble falling asleep due to academic and emotional stress, resulting in later bedtimes. These statistics reveal that stress has a much more significant impact on sleep quality than other factors, such as alcohol consumption or late night electronic usage.

“While some stress is useful and even healthy, frequent and chronic stress can take a toll,” said Counseling and Psychological Services’ pre-doctoral intern Katherine Leinberger. “It can take some skill to recognize when the stress scale has tipped. Stress is expressed somatically, and as a result, a somatic consequence includes insomnia. At the end of the day, timeless safeguards against stress include sleep and effective time management.”

Whether alarming rates of sleep deprivation among adolescents ages 17 to 24 are due to stress related factors or simply allocating time to other activities, poor sleep quality is leading to maladaptive outcomes, especially in the classroom. The same study revealed that sleep deprived college students became increasingly likely to miss class; 12 percent of poor sleepers miss or fall asleep in class three or more times a month.

During a normal school week, 20 percent of students pull all-nighters at least once a month and 35 percent stay up until 3 a.m. at least once a week.

A developing concern among researchers has been the correlation between increasingly poor sleep quality and the dependency on over-the-counter drugs and other sleep aids. Those college students with unhealthy sleep patterns are twice as likely to use alcohol and other drugs as sleep inducers.

“I usually will smoke weed every night because it has become the only way that I can fall asleep at night,” said a UC Davis student who requested to remain anonymous. “It’s also a motivator for me to do work. I’ll tell myself that if I work on academics for a straight two hours, then I can smoke weed and go to sleep.”

Researchers have attempted to attribute other factors to college students’ lack of sleep, one of them being the effects of the computer screen. According to a study done at the John Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, the bright light of a computer screen can alter the body’s biological clock and suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone in the body that regulates sleeping and waking hours.

“Nowadays, there are lots of environmental issues that play a role in altering sleep patterns, and the most obvious would be the computer,” said Dr. Nancy Collop, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center in a press release. “It emits a blue light, which is one of the most stimulating lights to the receptors we have in the back of our eyeballs; it sends a message to the brain on whether it’s day or night, and whether we should be awake or asleep.”

Despite varying explanations for college students’ sleep deprivation, researchers agree that poor sleep quality results in long-term consequences. CAPS psychologists and other researchers suggest that reducing stress is crucial to improving the quality of sleep.

“Stress-busters are limitless,” Leinberger said. “They can include physical exercise, as well as dance, yoga and stretching. Typically, the key to stress-busting lies in the commitment to engage in it, inspired by the belief in its efficacy.”

REBECCA SHRAGGE can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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