Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, and college students are even more prone to overexhaustion.
Here’s what you need to know to rest easy tonight.
I had a good friend in college who, whenever I was up late trying to study for a final exam or belaboring a lengthy paper, would turn to me with half-closed eyes and tease me in a sonorous, tempting voice: “Forever sleep,” he would say, “forever sleep.”
In response I would either hustle him out of my room or take the opportunity to procrastinate by chatting him up about one thing or another. Sleep, sadly, would have to wait.
Study after study shows that I was not alone, that college students are chronically sleep deprived due to their erratic work and social schedules.
“Often, I’ll have weeks when I average about six hours of sleep per night,” said Harvard University senior John Warren. He admits to “snoozing” anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half after his alarm goes off each morning.
Warren is one among many. Students are simply a particularly exhausted vanguard of a nation of sleepyheads.
‘Sleep Debt’ Is a National Issue
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., Americans sleep 20 percent less than they did as this century began. In 1910 Americans slept an average of nine hours a night. Today they rest for about seven. Most doctors recommend at least eight to insure good health.
Unfortunately, getting eight hours of sleep is unusual for most people. The Sleep Foundation’s most recent Gallup survey, called “Sleepiness in America” quotes ominous figures based on the “Epworth Sleepiness Scale.”
According to the survey, 32 percent of adults scored above a 10 on the Epworth Scale (moderately severe sleepiness) while 6 percent scored over 15 (severe sleepiness). Meanwhile, 70 percent of American adults say they drink caffeinated beverages regularly to stay alert, while almost 20 percent report napping.
The entire country is suffering from a growing “sleep debt,” said James Walsh, director of the Sleep Medicine and Research Center in St. Louis. “We live in a 24-hour society. There are more shift workers, more things we can do when the sun goes down. Before electricity, people used the dark to sleep. Now we’ve got cable TV and the Internet, which keep millions of people up when they should be sleeping.”
We all know people who claim to get by on fewer hours of sleep than the rest of us. President Clinton, for example, reports that he hits the sack for only five or six hours per night.
According to researchers, there is a small percentage of the population that can thrive on such a stunted sleep schedule. Those people are called “short sleepers.”
Researchers Are Trying to Help
Audrey Chang of the Washington, D.C.-based Better Sleep Council said she thinks many of these eager beavers are “just trying to be macho.” She said there’s a certain glamour to being up all night and awake at the crack of dawn, and that people think they can discipline themselves to need less sleep. “You can’t train yourself,” Chang said. “How much sleep we need is genetically determined.”
The number of sleep clinics in America has more than tripled in the past 20 years. Educational, research and support groups that focus on sleep issues have also proliferated. Some are soothing, like the aforementioned Sleep Foundation and Better Sleep Council; others are more curious, like Parents Against Tired Truckers, the Narcolepsy Network, and the Sleep Disorders Dental Society.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 200,000 crashes are related to drowsy driving. In addition, recent studies have demonstrated that a lack of sleep is detrimental to our immune systems, our motor skills, our memory and our creativity.
Yet even after we’ve put away the books, logged off the Internet and returned from our final trip to the all-night convenience store, millions of us still have trouble sleeping.
It’s time to sleep. We want to sleep. But we just can’t. Why?
How to Get Better Sleep
Several factors may be involved. Stress is perhaps the best known. Almost every college student has tossed and turned with worry about an unwritten paper or an unfinished problem set. Stress increases heart rate and blood pressure, raising excitement levels. Students say the sensation can become almost electric. It can keep a person awake for hours.
While there are various ways of controlling stress, it will most likely remain a constant pressure in the lives of college students and beyond. In the meantime, the Better Sleep Council stresses proper “sleep hygiene.”
Chang urges students to take control of their “sleep environments” – adjusting noise level, temperature (she said people sleep best at between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and bodily comfort. She recommends white-noise machines, ear plugs, heavy blinds, bed boards, foam mattress cushions, contoured pillows� basically, whatever works.
“Sleep hygiene is anything related to sleep that a person can control,” Chang said. “A lot of it seems like common sense, but common sense is often overlooked.”
For instance, Jeremy Hung-Friedman, a senior at Penn State University, claims that “sometimes it’s difficult to sleep if I’m really hungry. I wake up and I’m all like, ‘damn, I got to get me some Doritos.'”
But sleep experts advise against eating or exercising right before bed. Both activities temporarily boost the body’s metabolism and make it harder to sleep. Other “sleep stealers” include alcohol and caffeine, and experts urge caution and consultation with a doctor before turning to over-the-counter sleeping aids like Melatonin.
What Washington’s Deep Pockets Are Doing to Help
There are, of course, medically diagnosable sleep disorders, and an estimated 30 million Americans suffer from them. Recently, the National Institutes of Health established the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and commissioned a major sleep study.
The study looked at descriptions, symptoms, causes and treatment options for various common sleep disorders. These ranged from narcolepsy to “sleep eating disorder,” whose victims actually rise out of bed while still asleep and make themselves meals. “They wake up in a pile of crumbs and have absolutely no recollection of what happened,” explained Dr. Antonio Zadra, lead researcher in the Sleep Disorder Center of Montreal’s Sacre-Coeur Hospital.
The center’s Web site allows dreamers share their dreams with researchers and explore what experts have determined to be the 55 most common dream themes.
Along with the old standbys like nakedness, falling and sexual intercourse, some of the more “typical” include being chased, losing teeth, and eating delicious foods.
A section of the site is devoted to nightmares, which are differentiated from bad dreams by the fact that their intensity causes the dreamer to wake up with a start. According to Zadra, five to seven percent of adults report current problems with nightmares.
Centuries ago, nightmares were thought to be visitations from evil spirits and demons. Later, they became the objects of both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis.
Tricks That Help You Control Your Dreams
But modern students of sleep have been working to develop other ways for sleepers to control unsettling dreams. One trick: write down the nightmare immediately after you awaken, and then revise, making whatever changes feel right. Another technique involves something called “lucid dreaming,” loosely defined as being aware that what you are experiencing is a dream and not real.
“For example,” Zadra said, “if a person is being chased in a dream we’d tell them to recognize that they are dreaming and to confront their pursuer. And then do what? Have a dialogue with them. Say, `Hey, who are you? Why are you chasing me?’ It works remarkably well.”
The point is, it’s possible to get a better night’s sleep no matter what your daytime troubles.
Still, the number one problem, most researchers and educators agree, is that Americans are indifferent to sleep.
“Those same people who would never dream of getting behind the wheel of a car after drinking, think nothing of driving when they’re half asleep,” Chang said. “Sleep should be though of as a health issue, part of what we like to call the `Triumvirate of Health’ � exercise, diet and sleep.”
Although it may seem that those counseling overcommitted college students to get more sleep are fighting a losing battle, they remain optimistic.
“People are starting to take a look at sleep,” said Heidi Wunder of the National Sleep Foundation. “We’ve seen more diagnoses of sleep disorders recently, and, hopefully, as we continue our efforts, people’s awareness will continue to increase.”