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MSU professors discuss ways to increase sleep quality, why you might be so tired

September 21, 2022
<p>Psychology and criminal justice senior Brianna Harris rests her head on a desk on Oct. 10, 2018 at Berkey Hall. Balancing work, school and a social life is a challenge for many college students and can result in sleep deprivation.   </p>

Psychology and criminal justice senior Brianna Harris rests her head on a desk on Oct. 10, 2018 at Berkey Hall. Balancing work, school and a social life is a challenge for many college students and can result in sleep deprivation.

Photo by Sylvia Jarrus | The State News

If you have a hard time waking up in the morning, don’t worry -- it’s probably not your fault.

There are a variety of external factors that can affect the length and quality of our sleep. However, MSU animal science professor Hanne Hoffman said that college students and others in their teens or early 20’s have a delayed biological clock that makes waking up early much more difficult.

“Your body clocks are actually about three to four hours delayed at your age," Hoffman said. "When it's 6 a.m. for your dad's body clock, it's actually 10 a.m. for your clock."

This means that students waking up at 10 a.m. actually feel like they’re rolling out of bed at six or seven in the morning. 

“Society's imposing a school schedule for teens and early 20s that aligns with your teacher's schedules, their clocks, which is earlier than yours, but it goes against your clock,” Hoffman said.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about this -- and a lack of sleep is associated with a host of negative health effects, including an increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and gaining weight, Hoffman said.

While you may not be able to change the time you get up for school or work, you can make small adjustments to your life to ensure that you’re sleeping a healthy amount.

Circadian rhythms

Ideally, Hoffman said, we would maintain synchronization between our body functions and the time of day.

Humans evolved on a planet with a 24-hour rotation, and our bodies have adapted to it, following an internal time-keeping system that aligns our bodily functions along the 24-hour cycle. This system, called the circadian system, is sensitive to light and regulates when you go to sleep and when you wake up.

“Within each cell of your body, we have this little clockwork, which we call a molecular clock,” Hoffman said. “It can actually keep track of time, even if there's no light, and this helps your body to anticipate daily changes in your environment.”

Hoffman said humans should be aligned with the environment: waking when the sun rises and sleeping when it’s dark out.

Of course, following the same schedule as the sun is unrealistic for most, if not all, college students. There are multiple easier ways to increase your quality of sleep.

Pay attention to light

Hoffman suggests avoiding bright light in the evening, especially the light emitted from screens.

“Screens emit what we call blue light … blue light very, very strongly excites your brain,” Hoffman said. “If you have a lot of screen time in the evening, it's going to make your body think that it's still early afternoon or midday.”

Hoffman recommends using a blue light filter and dimming the screen on your devices if you are using them after 7 p.m., which will reduce the blue light’s effect. Additionally, she said students can invest in red lighting for their living space to help promote healthier sleep.

Red light makes the body think it's sunset, Hoffman said, and installing red light bulbs or smart lighting is a good way to regulate the amount of light your body receives at night.

Hoffman also suggested the use of “happy lights,” bright lamps that can help reduce seasonal depression and regulate your sleep schedule. She recommends sitting in front of a happy light for 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. This will shift your internal clock forward, helping you fall asleep earlier in the evening.

Get up and go outside

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Receiving strong, natural light in the morning is a great way to advance your clock. Indoor light measures out to around 300 lux, the standard unit of measurement for light. A beautiful sunny day is probably around 8,000 lux, Hoffman said.

Taking your morning coffee or breakfast outside or even walking to class will likely help you feel more adjusted to your schedule.

MSU psychology professor Lili Yan studies how light affects the brain. She said exposure to natural sunlight during the day can actually help reduce the negative effects caused by light exposure at night. This concept is called photostasis.

“It's really difficult to ask everyone to keep a regular sleep schedule … sometimes it's just not practical,” Yan said. “The most relatively easy thing for students to do is to spend time outside, get exposure to natural sunlight.”

Yan said more daylight exposure can also support a healthier brain state and better cognitive function.

Regulate your bedtime

Kimberly Fenn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at MSU, recommends setting an alarm for your bedtime.

“If you know you have to wake up at 8 a.m. and you want to be in bed by midnight, set an alarm for 11:45 p.m. and that'll give you enough time to brush your teeth or do what you need to do … to actually get in bed by midnight,” Fenn said.

Managing your bedtime can help you avoid something Hoffman calls “social jetlag,” similar to the disorientation that can affect your internal clock when flying across time zones. Social jetlag results from inconsistent bedtime and screen time and can increase your risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or weight gain later in life.

Pay attention to what you’re eating & drinking

If you’re feeling tired or your sleep quality is poor, it may have something to do with what you’re eating or drinking. 

Fenn said it’s best to avoid caffeine six to eight hours before bed, and alcohol four hours before bed. Alcohol, Fenn said, may help you fall asleep easier, but it also results in fragmented sleep.

“When you’re going through these sleep cycles … when your body goes up to hit REM (rapid eye movement phase of sleep), you actually wake up,” Fenn said.

Regulate your sleeping environment

Creating a comfortable and sleep-friendly environment is also a good way to increase sleep quality, Fenn said. She recommends blackout shades for students that have windows exposed to light sources like streetlights, as the light will cue your brain to daytime. She also said a temperature of 60 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit is best. 

Noise also affects sleep quality, Fenn said. She said the first few hours of sleep are the most important, and they’re also very hard to wake up from. 

Finally, ensuring you have a comfortable environment will help enhance your sleep quality. Don’t buy a cheap mattress, Fenn said, and make sure it's as comfortable as possible.

Does Melatonin Really Work?

Melatonin is a naturally secreted hormone that your body produces in response to darkness. Store-bought supplements advertise their ability to promote healthy sleeping patterns.

It’s possible that melatonin is replacing the hormones that you should naturally secrete, Fenn said, but it’s also possible that it’s just a placebo effect.

She said while some people, such as those struggling with insomnia, might benefit from melatonin supplements, there’s no reason a young, healthy person should need to take it, and that there’s no empirical evidence that proves the supplements have any effect on sleep for them.

Additionally, Fenn said, the supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so there’s no way of knowing how many milligrams you’re really taking per tablet.

Fenn does recommend one brand of melatonin - REMfresh, which is produced in the UK, where Fenn said it is regulated.

The systemic solution

At the end of the day, a young person can do everything right and still be tired as a result of their biological clocks being delayed at their age. Hoffman advocates for a later start time for high schools and colleges so that young people can avoid chronic sleep deprivation. 

“We need to change school time for high schools, and then hopefully also for college down the line,” Hoffmon said. “It’s a little bit like saying politicians should start work at 4 a.m., and they’re never going to agree with that.”

Hoffman said 21-year-olds have the most delayed biological clocks, and that young people should slowly have an easier time getting up early as they get closer to their mid-20s.

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