College students are never getting enough sleep

Nick Kondyles

It is estimated that college students get between six and seven hours of sleep across their schooling. The sleep schedule of the average college student is not a pretty sight and an inconsistent one at that. Everyone has their tough weeks with a multitude of papers piled on top of midterms. But try adding work conflicts to the mix. Then family troubles, employment and financial strain. These are just a few of the many factors outside of schooling that may disturb how much sleep we’re getting and how well we’re sleeping.   

On some nights of the week, we might be lucky enough to get seven or maybe even eight hours—on a Sunday, most likely—instead of the usual four to six. Some of us who work the night shift might even choose to come home after class and sleep during the day. 

But all of these concern the same question: How long we are sleeping? Some findings are saying that the number of hours matter little in comparison to the quality of the rest we are receiving while asleep. Remember that when you schedule your next 8 a.m.

There have been historical case studies that point to going to sleep at getting to bed reasonably early in the night, which is pretty much out of the question for a great number of college students, as the key for better rest. These include Napolean Bonaparte going to bed around 7 p.m. and waking up at 4 a.m., ready, well rested and having gotten quality asleep, with the energy needed to conquer the known world. Of course, this sentiment is not realistic and doesn’t apply to those of us who have been sleep deprived since high school.

If the answer were to just get to sleep early each night, we would have figured that out by now, right?  Unless the answer lays more deeply in our brains. Perhaps we’re getting the number of hours recommended to us by doctors and yet still wake up exhausted. Some of us have learned to deal with this fact more than others. 

The general consensus seems to be that the college crowd is just too overburdened with activity—club obligations, sports, the strength of a full course-load, grad school worries, et. cetera—for a lot of sleep to be attainable. Unless you’ve gotten a sleep study done, though, it’s unlikely you know the full reason to why, after all your efforts, you are still tired and what the source of the tiredness is. 

Sleep observation studies have revealed that, of the 90-minute cycle of sleep we go through only about a quarter of it is spent in Rapid Eye Movement (dream) sleep. The majority of the cycle is spent in Stage 2 and 3, Non-REM sleep, known by its deep brain waves and stiff bodily activity. This is also where sleep paralysis, that moment when your limbs are frozen—as if chained to your bed—occurs.

This is probably the most important portion of the sleep cycle and explains a lot of why you are waking up exhausted. If interrupted during the deepest stage of sleep, where the waves are the longest, whether it’s the alarm clock or the roommate’s heavy metal shower music, it interrupts the completion of the REM and Non-REM cycle.

The circadian rhythm is what’s responsible for getting our body in synch with its natural production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This is the chemical to blame if you’re not tired at 3 a.m., because your body has not produced enough of it for the day. Starting at age 20, the production of melatonin in general begins to steadily decline, making sleep (and yes, dreams) less intense. 

Did you ever notice that you can hardly remember your dreams now as opposed to the falling-off-a-cloud dreams you had as a kid? Well, this is partly the reason. By age 45, it’s projected that your body will be producing so little melatonin that you will have trouble falling asleep. That’s when melatonin supplements come in, I suppose. But no amount of Nyquil can fix the fact that since high school, most of us have been set on the track of not only short bursts of low-quality sleep and follow an inconsistent and highly interrupted sleep schedule. 

We cannot hope to fix our sleepiness by sleeping more. We’ve all been there before, like the long nap after a big meal. We fall back asleep for just a while longer and we wake up feeling even more lousy. It seems that at the most unexpected times, our body surprises us. It also seems that the key to quality sleep is not sleeping the right amount, per se, but sleeping at the right, opportune time. 

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