Before you hit the frats with friends last night, you promised yourself you’d be home by midnight. Now it’s noon the next day, and you’re in bed staring at the clock, groggy and confused. How did you stay out so late? And how did you stay asleep under the covers so long?
Keeping a consistent sleep schedule is near impossible in college. Thanks to studying, can’t-miss parties and general restlessness, collegiettes are always waking up and going to sleep at different times. But a seemingly harmless irregular sleep schedule can actually be really unhealthy. It can make you prone to colds, cause concentration problems and can even make your skin break out.
Here are five easy tricks to fix the problem. Stop counting sheep – and start counting the different ways to get your sleep schedule back on track.
1. Stick to a routine.
It may seem obvious, but the best way to fix your sleep schedule is by picking consistent times to go to bed and wake up each day, aiming for six to eight hours of nighttime shuteye. Try your hardest to follow this routine as closely as possible, but don’t give up if one night throws you off. Set an alarm on your cell phone to sound at the same time every day, rather than setting your alarm before you go to sleep each night.
Eventually, your body will program itself to be tired and awake at the right times. Susan Purdy, who performs and monitors sleep studies at Shands and University of Florida Sleep Disorders Clinic, says the time it takes for a person’s sleep schedule to adjust varies. But the sooner you attempt to correct your schedule, the faster your sleepy side effects will change.
If you have a roommate, tell her about your new routine. That way she’ll know when to be quiet and you’ll be able to score a full night’s sleep. Also, only use your bed for sleeping. Purdy says this trick will help your body begin to associate the bed with sleeping. Yes, this means you may have to find a new place to watch those “Gossip Girl” reruns. But soon enough, you’ll feel a difference when your head hits the pillow.
2. Be active at the right times.
Exercise can be a great way to help you control your body’s energy levels and get back on a regular sleep schedule. In fact, one study by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed that women who exercised for 30 minutes in the morning had an easier time falling asleep at night.
To wear herself out, University of Pennsylvania senior Grace Ortelere says she goes on long runs. This exercise makes her fall asleep earlier, without tossing and turning all night long. However, make sure you hit the gym several hours before you plan on turning in for the night. Too much activity right before bedtime may be the reason you’re restless, even after a long day of school, work and meetings.
3. Find ways to wind down.
If you’re trying to go to sleep earlier to regain a regular schedule, but feel too awake at first, there are a few tricks that can help.
Never try to go to bed with a full stomach. Heavy meals and alcohol right before bedtime can make you restless and uncomfortable. While alcohol may help you get to sleep quicker, Purdy says it also disrupts your sleep cycle.
Log out of Facebook, sign off Twitter and turn off your iPod. Lights from phone and computer screens keep you alert, even if you don’t realize it. This can cause you to stay awake longer, messing up your sleep schedule even more. Annie Robinson, a sophomore at North Toronto Collegiate Institute, avoids distractions at night by simply turning off all the lights when she’s ready to go to bed.
Most importantly, avoid doing anything with repetition. For example, the common method of playing natural sounds of waterfalls or rain can actually prevent you from falling into a slumber. Your brain may start to pick up on sound patterns, making it harder for your body to shut down.
Instead, relax your mind. Purdy says she knows a few people who tell themselves stories to go to sleep. Find ways to get comfortable, such as taking a hot bath and adjusting the room temperature. “Do what your mom did before when you were a kid,” Purdy says.
4. Take naps (correctly!)
A nice, quick snooze might be the only thing on your mind when you’re sitting in your morning lecture hall, struggling to keep your eyes open. But beware! While naps can at first make you feel awesome and totally refreshed, they can also be dangerous to your sleep schedule.
Mel Peale, a junior at James Madison University, says that after a long weekend she finds it impossible to catch up on sleep. For her, 30-minute naps usually do the trick. They rejuvenate her, but not too much that she can’t doze off at night. “If you sleep for too much longer, you will fall into a deeper sleep, and will end up feeling even more tired when you are woken up by your alarm two hours later,” she said.
Remember: knowing how to take the perfect nap can help get you through the day, but short snoozes should never replace your regular sleep.
5. Get professional help.
So now you’ve tried every trick in the book, but still can’t seem to catch enough ‘Zs’ on a regular schedule. You’re exhausted and stumped. What’s next?
Look for a sleep clinic in your area. Many universities use them for research, and local hospitals usually have a center dedicated to helping sleep disorders. Purdy recommends making an appointment with a sleep physician before self-medicating to solve your problem.
If you must turn to sleep aids for help, always speak with a pharmacist or physician to explore options and potential side effects, such as next-day sleepiness or dizziness. Purdy says one all-natural remedy, Melatonin, is both safe and effective. For Virginia Tech junior Laura Baugh, a Melatonin pill an hour or two before bedtime helps her stick to her sleep schedule.
Now, you’ve got the tips and tricks to help you kick that irregular sleep schedule for good. Say goodbye to nights staring at the ceiling, and mornings where you just can’t roll out of bed. It may take time and effort to get back on track, but your body will thank you in the end. Good night!