Poor Sleep? Don't Take it Lightly

Sept. 26, 2012

I just recently heard a student say: "I'll be lucky if I get three hours of sleep tonight.” 

She seemed sort of proud, as if to say, I’m so busy that I cannot be bothered with sleep.

The reality is that many Americans, especially college students, are short-changing their “shut eye," thinking that it’s a luxury they just can’t afford. In truth, the quality and quantity of sleep we get influences physical, emotional, intellectual and social well-being. It also plays a critical role in determining how well an individual performs his/her daily tasks (like writing, driving, paying attention in classes/meetings). Research on college sleep behaviors found that students are sleeping, on average, almost one hour less each night than students in the 1980s. 

Does it matter that today’s students live in a 24/7 technology-driven world that enables texting, viewing, posting, shopping, talking or playing online every minute of the day?

Absolutely! The average student doesn’t get enough sleep. 

A team from Campus Health published research last year in the Journal of the American College Health Association on the topic.

To obtain data on quantity and quality of sleep, researchers administered the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) as an online survey, with more than 1,700 students participating. A sub-sample of students participated in an eight-question structured interview focused on sleep patterns and the impact of sleep on their lives.

According to their PSQI scores, the majority of students presented serious sleep problems. Interviews focused on sleep problems associated with school workload, stress or dorm noise. Sleep affected academic and physical performance and emotional regulation. Most students reported compensating for sleep loss by taking naps. 

What we learned is that sleep among college students is generally fair to poor and requires further study, with an eye to improving amount and quality of sleep. Making an investment in teaching students how to effectively manage stress, their own health and their relationships with peers could improve their sleep in the short and long term. That’s why we developed educational posters and a popular “Snoozeletter” for the residence halls with tips on how to get better sleep. The campaign was called simply, “Go to bed!”

I include a bit about sleep education in most presentations that I give on campus, whether talking about stress, sexual health or alcohol. 

Students, and staff, too, need to be reminded that there are many benefits to getting enough sleep. Who doesn’t want better grades, better mood, less stress and fewer sickness or accidents?

Steps for better sleep:

Keep regular bedtime/waking hours

Exercise regularly

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine in the evening

Keep up with schoolwork

Maintain a dark, quiet bedroom

Try ear plugs and sleep mask

Getting enough quality sleep can lead to less stress, better grades, less sickness and a better mood

Lee Ann M. Hamilton is assistant director of Health Promotion & Preventive Services at the UA's Campus Health Service.