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Up All Night: Your Sleep Issues Solved

It’s 3 a.m. on a weekday. Instead of catching up on beauty sleep or resting up before the big quiz in the morning, you’re lying awake in bed, and you don’t know why. In college, we often give up precious sleep for noble causes (whether that involves books or red Solo cups), but it’s frustrating when you actually want to go to sleep — but can’t. What’s a girl to do when counting sheep is keeping us up even longer? HC got the scoop on common sleeping problems, relaxation techniques, sleep disorders and more, so that you can put your cute Victoria’s Secret PINK PJs to use and get some serious shuteye tonight!

What’s Keeping You Awake?

What keeps college girls up at night? The most common causes include a night owl schedule, stressful lifestyle or too much mental stimulation before bed.

Many of us have a syndrome called delayed sleep phase. “Teens and young adults often have delayed sleep phase, meaning they don’t feel sleepy until later in the night or in the wee hours of the morning,” says Lisa Shives, MD, spokeswoman for SleepBetter.org and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. This sleep issue is not a serious medical problem, but it ensures that you’ll be up watching 90’s reruns on Nickelodeon instead of being tucked into bed late at night. Delayed sleep phase is common among collegiettes because of hectic schedules, rationing time between classes, work, sports, activities and our busy social lives. For many of us, this leads to studying, partying or otherwise staying awake late into the night on a frequent basis. It is a lot to fit into a 24 hour day, and the activity that seems expendable is sleep,” Dr. Shives says. But even though you’re not being graded or judged on how much sleep you get, it’s important to establish a healthy sleep routine so that you can function normally during the day.

Guys! Exams! Extracurriculars! Guys! Even if you’re setting aside enough hours for a healthy night’s sleep, all that hectic activity could leave you too mentally strained to relax at night. Dani, an HC contributing writer and sophomore at Northeastern University, sometimes has trouble winding down after a busy day of work and classes. Similarly, Katherine from Northwestern says, “Sometimes I just get to thinking about things like school starting or some sort of health problem I’ve been having, and I can’t fall asleep because of it.”

Others, like HC contributing writer and University of Michigan collegiette Erica, are extra-sensitive to stimulants such as caffeine and have to be careful to avoid them late in the day. Many of us are also guilty of using our laptops, TVs or phones right before going to bed. The use of these devices stimulates your brain in a way that makes it more difficult to relax into a state of sleep, says Dr. Shives, and the brightly lit screens strain your eyes, making it hard to drift off.

Quick Fixes

Our expert says these easy techniques will help you get to sleep more quickly and stay asleep through the night:

  • Leave the Phone Behind: Don’t bring your electronic devices to bed with you. Leave your laptop at your desk when you’re done using it for the night (we know you like to fall asleep gazing at Ian Somerhalder, but it’s better to finish that episode of The Vampire Diaries well before bedtime). And “leave the cell phone across the room and be sure that it is not alerting you every time you get a text or email,” says Dr. Shives. If at all possible, cut off your computer, phone and TV use an hour before bedtime.
  • Limit Caffeine Intake: Avoid drinking soda, coffee and tea three to six hours before you go to bed. These drinks contain caffeine, which stimulates the nervous system (great for staying awake through a boring lecture, but not so helpful before bedtime). Keep in mind that caffeine affects some people more severely than others.
  • Take a Hot Shower: A hot shower or bath will relax your muscles and soothe your senses. “I find that taking a hot shower and listening to music are great ways to relax before going to sleep,” says Dani.
  • Have a Light Snack: Whip up a small serving of proteins and complex carbs, like a plate of cheese and crackers. Carbohydrates increase your body’s level of tryptophan, a chemical that induces sleep. For maximum benefits, eat an hour before bed and keep the portion small. This will make things easier on your digestive system, which slows down when you’re asleep.
  • Take Sleep Medications — In Moderation: Occasionally, when there’s no time for a relaxing wind-down routine, you might consider over-the-counter sleeping pills. Melatonin, a supplement that adds to your body’s natural production of a natural sleep chemical, works well for people with jet lag or similar short-term sleep schedule problems. Another type of sleep medication, antihistamines, such as Tylenol PM, cause drowsiness right away but make you sleep more lightly. After finding the right medication for you, always read the directions carefully and limit your sleep medication use to once or twice a month. “They are not meant for long term use and are best used to help fall asleep on a short term basis,” says Kathy Gromer, MD, of the Minnesota Sleep Institute. Be sure not to combine sleeping pill use with alcohol, Dr. Shives warms. Both alcohol and sleep meds are depressants, so taking both at the same time is dangerous for your nervous system. Possible side effects include slower heart function, breathing problems and increased risks of going into a coma or death.
  • Clear Your Mind: Dr. Shives says that simple mental exercises, especially counting backwards, are a great way to focus if your thoughts tend to race at the end of the day. You could try meditation or reading in bed for the same calming effect. “I usually get up and read for a few minutes to interrupt the thoughts, and then I’m able to fall asleep,” says former HC intern Katherine.

You’ve probably heard dozens of other tips for falling asleep, ranging from simple to strange, but the good news is that most are worth a try. “I’ve found lots of little things that help [me fall asleep],” says Meghan from Appalachian State, “Like spraying lavender or another soothing scent on your pillow, or listening to rain sounds or white noise.” What about doing yoga, writing in a journal or picturing yourself walking down a flight of stairs? “All the little tricks you hear about usually help some people,” says Dr. Shives. “You just have to try different ones, often it is the combination of different techniques that results in better sleep.”

You’ve Tried Everything — And Still Can’t Fall Asleep

If your sleeping problems are so bad that they affect your health, academics or social life, you could have insomnia, a serious sleeping disorder that affects more than half of American adults, according to WebMD. “Insomnia means difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or [having] a sense that sleep is not refreshing,” says Dr. Shives. Acute insomnia is a short-term sleeping disorder caused by a single illness or stressful event (like jet lag or a bad breakup). However, insomnia can also be chronic, lasting for months or years because of depression or long-term stress.

There’s no way to confirm that you have insomnia until you see a doctor. “It is a clinical diagnosis which means there is no test. The diagnosis is based on the patient’s subjective report as to the quantity and quality of her sleep,” says Dr. Shives. Still, you can look out for signs of a serious sleep problem. Dr. Gromer explains that the following are serious symptoms:

  • Daytime sleepiness not relieved by getting enough sleep at night
  • Loud or worsening snoring, especially if sleep is not restful
  • Sleepwalking
  • Dependence on sleep aids
  • A loss of breath when asleep or making sounds like you are choking intermittently
  • Restless sensations in the legs that prevent falling asleep
  • Legs that kick or ‘run’ while you are asleep
  • Amnesia for things you did during that night if you were out of bed (like sleepwalking or sleep-eating)

Once diagnosed, insomnia is treated through a process called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The treatment includes gradual lifestyle changes, like developing pre-bedtime relaxation routines and helping the patient let go of bad habits. For example, “if someone has insomnia, we gradually taper them off all caffeine or only allow its use in the morning hours,” Dr. Shives says. A sleep specialist can help you figure out which habits are harming your sleep routine (beer pong on a Tuesday night?) and transition to more healthy habits. Medications are also used to treat insomnia, but lifestyle changes are usually the most successful treatment.

How do you know if your sleep issues are just the temporary effect of a stressful schedule, or something more serious that should be checked out by a doctor? If you’re getting less than six hours of sleep a night and are clearly impaired in the daytime, it’s time to consult your physician or university health services center. You should also seek medical attention if you’re getting enough sleep, but feel too tired or sleep-deprived to function normally. “If a student is very sleepy in the daytime despite at least seven hours of sleep per twenty-four hour period, then the quality of the sleep should be investigated with a physician, preferably a sleep physician,” Dr. Shives says. Your doctor can refer you to a sleep specialist, who may ask questions about your daily routine and ask you to keep a journal of your sleeping habits so that they can create a treatment plan for you.

Other Serious Disorders

Another common sleep problem among college students is narcolepsy, a disorder that makes you extremely drowsy every three or four hours during the day. Narcoleptic people suffer “sleep attacks,” in which they feel the urge to take sudden, short naps after eating, in class, during a conversation or in any given situation (yikes!). Narcolepsy is most common among those ages 18 to 24, says Dr. Shives. Definitely see a doctor if you’re experiencing severe drowsiness during the daytime.

Rick Brinkman, MD, points to sleep deprivation as another serious disorder. You might have experienced that dead-tired zombie feeling after pulling an all-nighter to finish a big essay (or sneaking out of a guy’s dorm in the wee hours of the morning before he sees your unflattering bedhead look). Although you might not think of sleep deprivation as a serious illness, it’s actually a disorder. When you go without enough sleep on a regular basis, the result is chronic sleep deprivation, and the consequences include delayed reaction time and trouble focusing. One study at St. Lawrence University not surprisingly found that sleep-deprived students get lower grades than their well-rested counterparts. “If you start burning the candle at both ends, you set yourself up for sleep disorders you would otherwise not have if you trained your body to sleep on a health schedule,” says Dr. Brinkman.

If you find yourself tossing and turning tonight, try our quick tips and make sure you don’t have the symptoms of a serious sleep disorder. It’s also important to follow up with long-term lifestyle changes to ensure you’ll doze off on time everynight. “If you decide what your personal goal is for yourself and create good lifestyle habits, you can train yourself to have a healthy sleep schedule no matter what the conditions or circumstances are,” says Dr. Brinkman. It might seem difficult to set up a consistent sleep schedule given your busy college life, but in the end, a good night’s sleep is so worth it. Sweet dreams, collegiettes!



“An Overview of Insomnia,” WebMD

College women from across the country

Kathy Gromer, MD, of the Minnesota Sleep Institute

Lisa Shives, MD, spokeswoman for the American Board of Sleep Medicine

Rick Brinkman, MD, founder of the Conscious Communication wellness program

Tarina is a freshman at Harvard University, where she plans to study English. In addition to serving on the Editorial Board of the Harvard Crimson newspaper, Tarina is involved in Philips Brooks House Association, a community service organization, and Ghungroo, Harvard's annual South Asian dance extravaganza. When she's not buried in pre-med classes or Arabic homework, Tarina likes to indulge in Indian soap operas, try unusual cuisine, and speculate on the meaning of life with her partners in crime, AKA friends. She loves creative writing and administrates a fiction blog as well as an online journalism portfolio, and her highly entertaining mishaps often merit publication on Harvard FML.
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