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The science behind sleep habits and how college students can improve them

November 27, 2023
Photo by Aryanna Dorsey | The State News

With odd class hours, late nights of homework, and partying being the basis of a normal college life, students tend to create their own sleep schedules and habits. To some, this college lifestyle creates a tendency for students to experience unbalanced sleep schedules, tiredness and even insomnia. 

"I don’t have the best sleep schedule, and I’m not very proud of it," kinesiology junior Larry Johnson said. "I usually stay up all night, then go to sleep around six in the morning before waking back up around noon for my classes. I function the best I can in times like this." 

Johnson claims his sleep schedule hasn’t always been this way, as back in high school he averaged around eight to nine hours of sleep per night.

But it isn't just Johnson that struggles to keep a regular sleep schedule in college. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least "60% of college students have poor quality sleep."

Though, there are some ways to break this cycle.

MSU Assistant Professor in the Department of Animal Science Hanne Hoffmann said that college students need to focus on being "regular" with their sleep. 

"Try to go to bed at approximately the same time every evening," Hoffmann said. "The specific time doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as you have the amount of hours that is required for your age group, which for college students is around eight to nine hours, depending on your age." 

Hoffmann said sleep quality is also an important factor. Getting those eight hours of sleep won’t matter if a student is waking up three times per night, she said. 

One way to get consolidated, or uninterrupted, sleep is to avoid any disturbance that may cause you to get less sleep, Hoffman said. The less disturbance you have when sleeping, the better. 

When regular or consolidated sleep is disturbed, it can cause irregular sleep patterns, or as Hoffmann called it, social jet lag. 

"Social jet lag is when your class or work schedule forces you to get up really early in the morning and go to bed late, while on the days you don’t have classes or work, you sleep in," Hoffmann said.  

Social jet lag has an overall effect on a person's well being. Hoffman said side effects include being short-fused or grumpy, aggressive, insufficient with challenging situations, an inability to learn and even physical health disorders.

Psychology junior Jane Carter said she’s comfortable with her sleep schedule, but has never considered these effects when setting it. 

Carter said she averages six hours of sleep on weekdays because of early morning classes. On the weekends when she is able to sleep in, however, she gets about ten hours of sleep. 

"I’ve actually been working on getting my sleep schedule back on track," Carter said. "Given that finals are coming up in a couple weeks, I'm attempting to go to bed earlier on weekdays, which has been working out pretty well."

Carter plans on breaking the "college mentality" of lacking sleep in hopes that she can create a regular sleep schedule. 

Hoffmann also pointed out the amount of hours a person sleeps can also have a physical effect on them, which can especially be seen in sports. 

"Lack of sleep is the greatest predictor of a sports injury,” Hoffmann said. “As an athlete, you definitely want to focus on getting enough sleep because you will reduce your chances of injury, you will perform better, have quicker reflexes, run faster and have more muscle power."

Johnson, who plays on Michigan State's club basketball team, said other than a few sprained ankles, he’s never experienced an injury on the court. However, unlike Johnson, advertising management freshman Michael Antonovich wasn’t so fortunate. 

"In my sophomore year of high school I injured my hip flexor in baseball, which sidelined me for the rest of the season," Antonovich said. "I never considered that lack of sleep could have played a factor in the injury, but looking back at it now, that could have been the case." 

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Antonovich is another college student subjected to a poor sleep schedule, claiming that on average he gets between four to five hours of sleep per night. However, Antonovich said that it’s not all his fault.  

"It’s something that I’m trying to work on," Antonovich said. "It's not that I’m up all night studying or partying, it’s just a matter of me not being able to fall asleep. Sometimes I’ll lie in bed for two to three hours before I can actually fall asleep."

Not being able to fall asleep is "normal" for Antonovich, and, according to Hoffmann, may be normal for most college students if they don’t correctly prioritize their sleep. However, taking the necessary steps to prioritizing normal sleep habits may be easier than expected. 

Hoffman said there are four steps toward improving the quality and quantity of one's sleep.

Commit to a regular sleep schedule 

Committing to a regular sleep schedule is the starting point to prioritizing sleep, Hoffman said.

It’s important for students to decide what they can commit to, Hoffman said. One way to start is by creating a set schedule. This would include setting a specific time to be in bed and a specific time to wake up five days each week. 

Hoffmann also pointed out that students should commit to giving up social media at a certain time before bed so it’s not tempting to be on after dark. 

Stay away from excitatory foods & drinks 

Eating and drinking the right amount of food before bed is another crucial step that students should engage in. Hoffmann warned that having "excitatory foods" in the evening often leads to keeping students awake. 

She also warned students about drinking caffeinated drinks. Like excitatory foods, caffeine will often leave you lying in bed with no answer to falling asleep. 

If you need excitatory supplements to help you fall asleep at night, Hoffmann said it’s a "red flag" and a sign for you to stop and prioritize your health and well being.  

Pay attention to light  

Creating a sleep-friendly environment is a good way to increase sleep quality. Hoffmann said when the sun is setting, begin to dim the lights around you or emit red and orange colors. This is a way to trick your mind into believing that it's time to sleep.

Hoffmann also suggested staying away from blue and green lights. Turning down the brightness to your phone or computer will help signal to your brain that it’s getting late. 

Relax

Going to bed excited or stressed will delay sleep, so participating in relaxing activities can help you calm your brain down and release thoughts. Hoffmann recommended things like listening to calming music before bed, stretching or doing yoga. This relaxes the brain to prepare you for a long night's rest. 

"Sleep really is magic – once you sleep enough, you can feel the difference," Hoffmann said. "Some even consider it the number one pillar in health. Though, if you don’t get enough sleep, you can really feel the negative effects on your health."

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