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The science of lost sleep

After students transition from their home environments to college life, their adjusting, sleep-deprived bodies often need a wake-up call. College students are among the most sleep-deprived age group in the United States, according to ScienceDaily.

“The underlying culprit is that this is a 24/7 society,” said Dr. Helene Emsellem, director of the Center of Sleep and Wake Disorders at the National Sleep Foundation.

In an age of 24-hour restaurants and supermarkets, late-night television shows and parties, students’ body clocks get set later. Insufficient sleep results in the disruption of a student’s circadian rhythm, the internal biological clock that regulates sleep and waking cycles.

Many USF students have become accustomed to scheduling later classes to get more sleep, but with the recent addition of 7:30 a.m. classes it will be harder for students to keep up with this habit.

“I have less control over when my classes are this year. I will have some 7:30 a.m. classes, but my studies take priority,” said Aaron Puebla, a USF sophomore double majoring in music and English. “Now that I am a music major my sleep will definitely be affected. I hear that it is very competitive: kids are up before class practicing.”

Though younger students have been told to strive for eight hours of sleep per night to achieve a long and healthy life, recent studies look to alter this golden number.

“Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night, as they report, live the longest,” said Daniel Kripke, co-director of research at the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center. “There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. Sleeping eight hours or more might really be a little worse than sleeping five hours,” he said.

In terms of measuring sleep, students should focus less on the number of hours and more on reaching the final stage of sleep. While sleep may seem like a passive activity, it is actually an active state. Sleep restores the body, helping it to repair damage and grow new cells while keeping the body’s nervous system working properly and assisting in consolidating memory, according to the Florida Sleep Disorder Center Web site.

A person passes through five stages during sleep, the last being rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, during which most dreaming takes place. This stage is most valuable to college students because it stimulates the part of the brain that facilitates the learning process.

An inability to absorb information isn’t the only side effect for students who don’t get a full night’s sleep. A body without proper rest will not operate at its peak. For that reason, many who suffer from sleep deprivation increase their food intake, according to This is one possible reason for the “freshman 15” weight gain feared by incoming students.

With the increasing demands on today’s college graduates, students are packing more and more activities into their calendars to keep up with the competition. Studies, clubs and jobs are often given priority over sleep.

“In the case of studying and sometimes cramming, sleep always takes the back burner,” mass communications junior Katie Leahy said.

The most popular advice doctors give students suffering from poor sleep habits is to exercise.

“In high school I was very active and it definitely helped me with sleep,” junior engineering student Allison Greene said.

While students may be coping with sporadic sleep schedules in college, it is unlikely that their schedules will get any easier once they graduate. Doctors widely agree that “now” is always the time for a healthy sleeping pattern.

Safe tips for falling asleep

  • Exercise and stay active. Twenty to 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity enhances deep sleep. Experts suggest not exercising for three hours before you go to sleep.
  • Avoid long naps. Power naps of less than 30 minutes can actually be quite refreshing but napping for much longer than this can make you drowsy and interfere with a good night’s sleep.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Sleep in the same room and bed every night.
  • Turn your clock so you can’t see it. Watching the clock can keep you awake.
  • If you wake up during the night, avoid bright lights.
  • If you can’t sleep, get up and do something boring.
  • Develop sleep rituals to let your body know it’s time to unwind and relax such as reading a book or taking a bath.
  • If light is a problem, try a sleeping mask. If noise is a problem, try earplugs, a fan or a “white noise” machine to cover up the sounds.
  • In the evening, eat turkey, bananas, figs, dates, yogurt, milk, tuna and whole grain crackers or nut butter. These foods are high in tryptophan, which promotes sleep.
  • Pour one cup of boiling water over one cup of grated lettuce. Seep for 30 minutes. Drain and drink.