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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

The Root Cause Of College Sleep Deprivation

By July 31, 2013

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Ah, college. Like a big, happy four to five-year-long slumber party, nobody expects to go there to get a good night's sleep. It's all those necessary all-night study sessions, the drinking, the caffeine consumption, and those crazy video games that are a constant fixture in the dorms that make sleep impossible, right?

Well, actually, not quite.

Research suggests that the biggest culprit in college sleep deprivation is--as you probably guessed by the topic of this site--stress! That's right. According to research, stress about school and life keeps 68 percent of students awake at night, 20 percent of them at least once a week. Stress affects their sleep quality far more than alcohol, caffeine or late-night electronics use, and more than 60 percent of college students have disturbed sleep-wake patterns and many take drugs and alcohol regularly to help them do one or the other, says a study from Roxanne Prichard, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., and Daniel Taylor, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas.

The study of 1,125 students appears online in the Journal of Adolescent Health. It found that only 30 percent of students sleep at least eight hours a night, the average requirement for young adults.  During the 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. Twelve percent of poor sleepers miss class three or more times a month or fall asleep in class.  (And I thought it was just me!)

"Students underestimate the importance of sleep in their daily lives. They forgo sleep during periods of stress, not realizing that they are sabotaging their physical and mental health," said Prichard.  She also notes that impairments in the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as weight gain, are health risks associated with insufficient sleep.

Daniel Taylor adds, "We know little about the health of this age range even though the consequences--substance use, psychopathology, poor grades, dropout and subsequent unemployment--of sleep disturbance could be greatest."

The researchers were particularly concerned about the students' tendency to use alcohol and drugs to regulate their cycles. Poor sleepers are more likely than are good sleepers to use medication to stay awake or fall asleep, and twice as likely to use alcohol to induce sleep. Alternating between stimulants and sedatives has been associated to a higher risk of addiction. This is also known to produce poor quality sleep, perpetuating the negative cycle of poor sleep and increased stress.

If you're a college student, it's important to realize that sleep affects the quality of your life and your stress levels far more than you may realize.  If you're not sleeping well due to stress, it's much more effective to address the problem at the source by practicing effective stress management techniques and incorporating nighttime habits for healthier sleep, rather than resorting to other substances to induce sleep or wakefulness.  Not only is this important for your grades, health and stress levels now, but it can contribute to your overall health and longevity in the future--now is the time to create lasting healthy attitudes and habits if you haven't already.  (This is also a good way to maintain your youthful good looks for longer--getting plenty of 'beauty sleep'!)

(If you're a concerned parent of a college student, obviously you can't force them to reduce their stress levels long-distance, but perhaps you can send this information to them and arm them with knowledge and resources. That's what parents are for, right?)

Sleep Resources For Stressed Students Source:
Lund HG, et al. Sleep patterns and predictors of disturbed sleep in a large population of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2009.
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