Insomnia: The sleepless syndrome

Nights spent staring at the ceiling are never fun. However, most college students can probably say that they have spent their fair share of nights drawing imaginary pictures on the ceiling because they could not fall asleep. As a result of high stress, an unhealthy diet and an irregular sleep cycle, many students may find themselves plagued by insomnia.

The National Institutes of Health characterizes insomnia as the inability to fall asleep or the inability to maintain sleep during the night. This disturbed sleep can last anywhere from less than a week to months on end. According to the National Institutes of Health website, it is more common in women and affects anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of adults.

Over time, sleep deprivation can result in sleep debt, which is difficult to make up. According to an article by the Mayo Clinic titled “Sleep: Your Body’s Means of Rejuvenation,” lack of sleep and an irregular sleep cycle can lead to increased accidents, decreased focus and can also weaken the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to viruses and infection.

Liberty University biology professor Dr. Mark Blais said that school related stress and anxiety can be one of the major causes of sleeplessness in college students. And pulling all nighters does not help.

“During sleep, you discharge necessary information and recharge your brain for the next day. If you pull an all nighter, you are not able to get rid of all the extra information,” Blais said.

Caffeine, which can be found in a variety of popular products such as coffee, soda and chocolate, is also a major cause of sleeplessness. Blais suggest that students who need to drink caffeine to stay awake should consume it in the morning to avoid the stimulant affecting them when they are trying to fall asleep.

Inactivity and long daytime naps can also inhibit a person’s ability to sleep. Using electronic devices, such as televisions, laptops and phones, which stimulate the mind, can also disturb sleep.

Several medical issues, such as taking certain medications or psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, can also result in insomnia.

While those suffering from extreme insomnia should seek a doctor’s advice, there are many small changes students can make to make falling asleep easier and faster. One is to their sleep environment, which plays a huge part in quality of sleep.

While some prefer absolute quiet when they sleep, for others, the absence of a familiar sound, such as a fan or ticking of a clock, can be disturbing. If a student falls asleep with the television on at home, but then comes back to a dorm room that’s completely silent, they may have a harder time falling asleep and adjusting to the lack of noise.

On its website, the National Sleep Foundation said that light plays a huge role in how people sleep. The site emphasizes the importance of finding the balance between light and darkness exposure throughout the day, as bright outdoor light can influence the body’s’ biological clock, which in turn, influences when the body feels sleepy or alert. According to Blais, less light is better at bedtime because people tend to sleep better in darker rooms.

Going to bed at around the same time each night and having a regular sleep routine can also help people fall asleep faster.

“Do the same things each night to tell your body it’s time to wind down. This might include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to soothing music. Relaxing activities can promote better sleep by easing the transition between wakefulness and drowsiness,” the Mayo Clinic said on its website.

Blais said one of the best things a person can do for their body is to wake up when they are supposed to.

“Don’t press the snooze button. It’s a symptom of procrastination, and you’re not being honest with yourself. If you know what time you need to get up, then get up,” Blais said.

The basics of sleep:

Sleep is essential to the body because it allows the brain to recharge for the next day. While it may be tempting to forsake a few hours to cram for a test or hang out with friends, it’s important to allow your body ample time to go through the five stages of sleep.

Stage One is when your eyes are closed, your body is relaxed and you can be easily woken.

Stage Two is when arousal becomes more difficult and brain waves slow down. Body temperature drops and the heart rate slows during this stage.

Stage Three and Stage Four are the deepest stages of sleep. This is when all the muscles begin to relax and blood flow is directed away from the brain toward the muscles. It usually takes 30 to 40 minutes to achieve Stage Four.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the last stage and only occurs for five to 10 minutes. Muscles are completely relaxed and oxygen use is increased. Breathing and heart rate become rapid and irregular, and your eyes are moving quickly.

According to Blais, the average college student needs about four to five REMs a night. This means they need about seven and a half to nine hours of sleep each night. To find out the optimal amount for your individual schedule, Blais suggests working backwards. So, for example, if you need to wake up at 7 a.m., you’ll want to go to bed at either 10:30 p.m. or midnight.

“Know what time you need to get up and go back an hour and a half each cycle,” Blais said. “Don’t get up during REM sleep, because that’s when you wake up groggy.”

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