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A word to students: Sleep
Struck by how often her students nodded off in class, psychologist Roxanne Prichard of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota began studying undergraduate sleep habits in 1999. College students are such erratic sleepers, she says, that most sleep researchers avoid them. On the muggy evening of October 4, some 250 wide-awake students packed Fulton 511 to hear Prichard talk about her studies, including “Sleep Patterns and Predictors of Disturbed Sleep in a Large Population of College Students” (published in 2010 in the Journal of Adolescent Health). The formal topic for the night was “Sleep: Like Healthy Eating and Exercise, Only Easier,” and the event was part of Sweet Dreamzzz, a campaign sponsored by the University’s Office of Health Promotion.
“In the first year of college, you experience the biggest shift in your sleep schedule since you stopped taking naps in preschool,” Prichard told her audience, citing the unfamiliar and chaotic dorm environment and the absence of parental regulations, among other factors. When she displayed a graph depicting a college student’s sleep schedule, which looked like the EKG of someone with an irregular heartbeat, the crowd nodded and laughed in recognition.
“How many days in the last week have you felt rested?” Prichard asked. Most hands shot up for one, two, or three days; a small minority claimed six or seven. The results echoed Prichard’s research, which found that two-thirds of college students fail to get enough sleep. College-age individuals should get 8.5 hours of sleep each night, Prichard said. The students groaned, as if they had been told they should have a 5.0 GPA.
Prichard also polled the students about daytime sleepiness. She posed eight scenarios, from studying in the afternoon to riding public transportation, and had students rate how likely they were to fall asleep in such circumstances, on a scale of 0 (unlikely) to 3 (very likely). Individuals who accumulated more than 10 points—and judging from the laughter that accompanied this informal survey, most in the room did—qualified as having “clinically excessive sleepiness,” she said.
A female student asked if lost sleep could be made up on the weekend, and Prichard shook her head. Only 40 percent of missed sleep can ever be recovered, she said, and staying up late to study is counterproductive. Sleep deprivation can lower immunity, burn muscle, raise blood sugar levels, and cause mood changes. After 17 hours awake, the brain begins to perform as if legally drunk, she said. “And you wouldn’t do your homework drunk, would you?”
Before the proliferation of electric light, Prichard said, the average person slept nine to 10 hours a night (she accompanied this information with a photograph of the Ingalls family from the television show Little House on the Prairie). A major cause of modern sleep problems, she said, is the nearly constant illumination from the screens of smart phones, tablets, TVs, and laptops, which act like environmental cues, or “zeitgebers,” that fool our biological clock into thinking it is still daytime. “Unplug from technology 45 minutes before bed,” she advised.
Students inquired about some of the quirkier hearsay about sleep. Prichard declared lucid dreaming (through which one supposedly can learn to direct the course of dreams) to be bogus; and oversleeping, she said, is impossible. The crowd leaned forward when she was asked for her opinion of napping. “Naps can shatter the rhythmicity of your sleep schedule,” Prichard warned. “But if you’re sleepy behind the wheel, pull over and take a nap.”
“I need six alarm clocks to get up,” one female student lamented. “My roommate wants to murder me.” Prichard recommended that she download a 99-cent smartphone app that can track her sleep cycle and wake her during REM sleep, when the brain is actively dreaming and more easily roused. That, or move the alarm clocks across the room, she added.
In her parting advice, Prichard encouraged students to “create a sleep sanctuary in your dorm room . . . a dark, quietly restful place.” The students looked doubtful, but help was at hand. As they left the room, they collected complimentary sleep masks and, to contend with the ambient noise of dorm life, the official earplugs of NASCAR.
Will Dowd ’06 is a Massachusetts-based writer.
Read more by Will Dowd