From wild parties to all-nighters spent “studying” with your friends, the parts of college that are most fun also tend to be most disruptive to your sleep. Throw in roommates with different schedules, fire alarms in the middle of the night and general stress—and it’s amazing college students get any sleep at all.
For those nights when you need a good rest, we turned to doctors and experts on sleep who shared their best advice for students seeking shut-eye. Their simple tips are sure to help even the most stressed-out, sleep-deprived student get a good night’s rest. Check out their simple tips for getting to sleep (and staying asleep) at college.
Maybe you were up late last night cramming for an exam and now that you have an afternoon free, you’re considering taking a nap to make up a few hours of sleep, but that’s not the best idea. “Many people who have insomnia will attempt to compensate by sleeping in late on weekends or by napping excessively in daytime,” said Dr. Jose Colon, founder of Paradise Sleep and award-winning author of The Sleep Diet, A Novel Approach to Insomnia. A good analogy, he says, is not eating candy before dinner, as it would spoil your appetite. “Sleeping in late or taking long naps to try to compensate for poor sleep is like ‘sleep candy’ that ruins your appetite for your healthy sleep.”
“Some people have difficulty sleeping because something is bothering them—and what is bothering them is that they have difficulty sleeping,” said Colon of the vicious cycle of sleeplessness. “The more you stress about not sleeping, the more awake you will be.” If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, try getting up and reading or writing, it will take your mind off your inability to sleep, allowing you to relax into a sleepy state.
“Insomnia is not a disorder, but rather a symptom,” said Colon, who compared insomnia to a fever. “People don't have a fever disorder, but rather a fever as a symptom. A fever can be from strep throat or UTI or a cold [and] these are all treated in different ways. Tylenol may make someone feel comfortable, but it doesn't treat the underlying disorder. Likewise, Insomnia is a symptom. It may be from sleep apnea, restless legs, anxiety or psychophysiological insomnia. And sleep aids may make someone comfortable, but they don't treat the underlying [issue]. It is prudent to work with a sleep specialist…to identify and treat the underlying cause of insomnia.” Additionally, depression is an issue that many college students face and it can negatively impact sleep, it’s crucial to see a counselor if you think you might be suffering from depression.
“To avoid (or address) sleep problems make sure you and your roommates are on the same page,” said Dr. Kimber Shelton, a licensed psychologist with more than eight years of college counseling experience and owner of KLS Counseling & Consulting Services. “Come to an agreement regarding quiet/study/sleep times and try to respect the agreement. Don't just assume your roommates will have the same expectations that you do, be as clear as possible to avoid future problems.”
“Even a respectful roommate might need to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. If you are a light sleeper, consider using ear plugs to block out sound and an eye mask to block out light,” Shelton said.
“Having that third latte may seem like a good idea to get through a night of studying, but it can be a nightmare on your sleep. Drinking alcohol may also seem like a good idea before sleep; however, alcohol can impact our ability to gain restorative sleep, thus waking with a hangover,” Shelton said. “Avoid using alcohol and drugs prior to sleep as they can throw off your sleep cycle.”
“Some sounds can minimize voices or other noises, while also being soothing and relaxing. Consider purchasing a sound machine or white noise maker,” Shelton said. “Sound machines can drown out sounds that keep you awake and can be set to resemble sounds from peaceful environments such as the rainforest or ocean. A fan works too.”
“An occasional all-nighter is part of the college experience, [but] it normally takes three days to recover from one,” said Dr. Wei-Shin Lai, a family doctor by trade, who has seen thousands of students at Penn State's (Main Campus) Student Health Center and founder of AcousticSheep. “The best way to avoid them is to plan better and to stick with the plan—that's easier said than done,” as many college students struggle with procrastination. But she says, “If you have to pull frequent all-nighters, then something needs to change. Analyze why they occur [and] try to avoid getting into those situations…If it's a motivation problem, you may need to see an academic adviser.”
“Teens and young adults are well known for their ability to sleep in until noon. A significant portion of 15-25 year olds are known to sleep scientists as ‘owls’—their internal clocks are longer than 24 hours. That means, if they were kept in a dark room for weeks, they would awaken and sleep in cycles of 26 hours, for example. The owl suffers from sleep deprivation because they can't fall asleep and they still have to wake up earlier than when their body is ready,” Dr. Lai said. “The best way for owls to deal with the faulty internal clock is to train it every day. Bright outdoor sunlight is the most powerful device for training the clock. Owls should get as much sun as possible early in the morning...Once awake, plan an activity that involves being outside—like studying outside or walking to class.”
“You need to be comfortable,” said Dr. Jesse Mindel, an assistant professor of neurology and sleep medicine expert at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That means taking into account everything from the comfort of your bed to the temperature of the room and even the light exposure. “Ideally there won't be a television on in the room, but the same light pollution can come from computers, tablets and phones. For electronic devices there are programs that can eliminate Blue Light, which will help minimize the negative effect of nighttime light exposure on ability to fall asleep,” he said. “Too much light exposure, especially at nighttime, can disrupt your circadian rhythm [and] any problem with a comfortable sleep environment will lead to increased nighttime arousals or trouble falling asleep.”
When it’s time to study, the last thing you should do is set up in your bed. “Go to the study lounge or common area to do your studying,” said Tosh Patterson, a health and wellness coach who’s worked with college students for 15 years and founder of Healthinista Living. “Don’t start the habit of studying or working in bed because it will be hard for your mind and body to shut off when it’s time.”
“While it can seem impossible to commit to a ‘bedtime,’ creating a routine will help your circadian rhythms adapt, which will help you fall asleep faster and ensure that you get the rest your body needs,” said Dr. Scott Weiss, a licensed physical therapist, board certified athletic trainer and co-founder of Bodhizone NYC. “Keep in mind that while it is best to adhere to a strict bedtime, it is not always a necessity. Just make sure that you are going to bed within an hour of your scheduled time to stay within the boundaries of your routine.”
“Just like natural light, light from a television or computer screen can also fire-up the brain. Combine that with the fact that television programming is designed to be stimulating, and your brain can get too excited to calm down for bed,” Weiss said. “By reducing television before bed, you can make sure that your brain is winding down for the night.”
“The olfactory system, more commonly referred to as our sense of smell, is truly an amazing sense,” Weiss said. “Much like our sense of hearing, its effect on other brain activity is easily observed and can help alter its activity. Relaxing scents, like lavender reed, ease the brain, and can help you fall asleep faster.”
“Exercise is important for a healthy lifestyle,” Weiss said, but the time of day you exercise might affect your ability to get to sleep. “Working out in the morning can promote better productivity during the day and help wake you up, but working out in the early evening can often help tire your body before bed.” But exercise too late in the afternoon or at night might be stimulating, keeping you awake. It varies from person to person, be sure to learn what works best for you.