All you need is love… and sleep

Skylar Zannini, El Inde

In honor of World Sleep Day on Friday, March 17, University of Arizona sleep researchers answered college students’ top 10 questions about their sleeping habits.

Why do college students stay up so late?

According to UA freshman Chloe Smith, it’s because “we’re stressed out.” 

Patricia Haynes, an associate professor of health promotion sciences at UA, says that although stress can be a factor, a lot of our sleep (or lack thereof) has to do with our circadian rhythms. 

“They have a predisposition to have a delay in their sleep cycle due to the circadian rhythm … . It’s just kind of something that happens with age,” Haynes said. 

Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that entail physical, mental and behavioral changes. Basically, this pre-determined biological cycle, along with the stress of  homework and class, is the reason we can’t sleep until the birds start chirping.

What causes a bad night’s sleep?

No scientific explanation is needed here. Things like too much screen time before sleep, abundant stress and an uncomfortable bed are some main contributors to not getting enough sleep at night. 

Fabian-Xosé Fernandez is an associate professor of psychology at UA and explained how “accessorizing” your bed can help make those sleepless nights a little more sleep-filled. 

“People don’t think about pillows, ever,” he said. “They can actually be important in how you’re sleeping night to night.” 

Here’s your free excuse to go shopping for some new bedding!

How does phone usage before bed affect our sleep?

It’s no secret that we’re on our phones almost 24/7. If it’s not in our hands, it’s in our back pocket or charging at the nearest electrical outlet. Smith says that the night-time scrolling doesn’t affect her sleep, but the experts are here to tell us that it does, more than you might think. 

“A lot of the things we’re doing on our phones, like social media, are set up and designed in a way that you want to keep being engaged, keep scrolling, keep using the app,” said Riley O’Neill, a UA graduate student studying clinical psychology. 

O’Neill also pointed out that the blue light being emitted from our phones can be a factor in why we can’t sleep after using them.

Leah Callovini, an undergraduate research coordinator at UA, explained that this lighting from our phones “interferes with our brain’s interpretation that it’s time to go to sleep.” 

The bottom line? Don’t use your phone before you go to bed. 

Can alcohol or cannabis affect our sleep?

Did we not already learn this in middle school health class? Alcohol can majorly disrupt our sleep, especially if you drink after a certain time. 

“It doesn’t give us the restorative sleep we need,” said Haynes.

Alcohol is a downer, and technically you’d be right in saying that it can help you fall asleep faster. However, Fernandez explained that it increases the likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night because when your body processes the alcohol, it has a stimulating effect. 

As for cannabis, Fernandez said the studies are “all over the place in terms of data.” In general, marijuana helps people fall asleep. The tricky part is figuring out how. Is it through mechanisms that are directly related to sleep? Or is it the anxiety-reducing properties of cannabis? Hopefully, the research can give us some better answers soon, but for now, it’s safe to say that your nightly joint can stay in the bedtime routine.

Is it actually possible to catch up on our sleep?

“It’s one of the biggest myths,” said O’Neill, “that idea that we can just catch up on the weekends. That’s not how it works for our body.” 

She said that once we lose that night of sleep, those hours are gone and we can’t get them back. However, new research is saying the opposite. 

“It’s an emerging area of fascination,” said Haynes. “Over time we build a sleep debt, which is exhaustion and that need to crash. We assume that one or two good nights of sleep can help us pay it back, but more and more of the research is showing that it takes quite a bit more time in bed and more days of extended sleep to actually pay it back.” 

Until this research is proven, it’s probably best to avoid racking up your “sleep debt” and just get enough rest every night.

What ensures a good night’s sleep?

The simple answer is routine. Haynes says it’s best to start winding down about an hour before you want to go to bed and to avoid being in your bed unless it’s for sex or sleeping. Having a bedtime routine allows you to decompress from the day and get into the right mindset for sleep. 

A bedtime routine could entail many activities, from meditation to journaling to stretching. There’s no right or wrong routine, but it’s best to keep the activities calming so your body can ease into a more relaxed state. 

“You have to look at sleep like going to the spa,” said Fernandez. “It’s your ‘me time’ to relax and unwind from the world, to put today’s concerns and leave them for tomorrow.” 

We’re constantly surrounded by other people, so it’s nice to have a time of day reserved for just you and your thoughts. Take advantage of the opportunity to be alone for a little while.

Does counting sheep really work?

In a sense, it does. While it may not specifically be the sheep that are helping us sleep, it’s the idea of distracting ourselves that helps us drift off. O’Neill thinks it may work because it “focuses your mind on something that isn’t the idea of ‘I want to fall asleep’.” 

If all you can think about is falling asleep, you’re never going to. We’ve all been there, and O’Neill suggests trying some focused breathing exercises instead of counting sheep next time. Unless counting sheep actually works for you, then you do you.

How much sleep should we be getting every night?

Although we grew up being told that we absolutely needed at least eight hours of sleep every night, it’s actually different for everyone. Some people are “short sleepers” and only need four hours of sleep every night, but they are a very rare breed.  

“The general recommendation for adults is seven to nine hours,” said Callovini. “That’s what’s considered optimal for maximizing your health.” 

With that being said, some people don’t need the full eight hours that were drilled into our heads when we were younger. Some people are able to function on seven hours of sleep, while others may need closer to nine. If you’re only getting five hours of sleep every night on a regular basis, that could potentially impact your health down the line. Common consequences of not enough sleep can include a reduced attention span and exacerbated memory. We struggle enough with remembering the things we study for exams, so let’s make it a little easier on ourselves and get the adequate sleep that we need.

Should we take sleeping supplements?

“They’re not regulated by the FDA,” said Haynes, “and there’s actually very little data that any of them actually work.”

If that isn’t enough to make you not want to take them, just think about all the other toxins you put into your body as a college student. Why would you want to add gasoline to the fire? 

“I think that we just have to be really careful about just taking things because we think they look good,” added Haynes.

How does our mental and physical health affect our sleep?

Our physical health can affect our sleep, whether it be pain from an injury or a chronic condition, such as diabetes. Obstructive sleep apnea is also a relatively common problem that prohibits people from getting a good night’s rest, according to Callovini. If you think you have a condition that is affecting your sleep, it’s probably best to consult your doctor about it. A real-life doctor though, not the ones on TikTok. 

Mental health can also affect our sleep, along with every other aspect of our lives. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, sleeping can be really difficult sometimes and it can be for a multitude of reasons. If you’re struggling with mental health and need someone to talk to, call 988 to speak with someone who can help. You are not alone.

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