Sleep is for the strong

UAlberta expert says university students not getting enough sleep, offers tips to get a better night's rest.

Laurie Wang - 07 September 2016

We've all heard the phrase before: Sleep is for the weak! But University of Alberta researchers who conducted a survey this year on students and sleep want to remind everyone that sleep is, in fact, for the strong.

"Research has shown, again and again and again and again, that those who get a good night's sleep typically get better grades and prevent themselves from getting chronic health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer," says Cary Brown, professor of occupational therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

"The student who studies today and gets a full night of sleep will do better on the exam than the student who crams all night at the 24-hour library," says co-researcher Shaniff Esmail, associate chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy.

Yet, according to the sleep survey of 1,294 U of A students, 30 per cent report that they get less than six and a half hours of sleep regularly. Only 61.5 per cent are getting the ideal six and a half to eight hours of sleep. And only 33.5 per cent of the students say they think they're getting enough sleep.

"People might have heard about the long-term effects of sleep deprivation, but students don't typically worry about their health 15 years down the line. With students it's important for them to know the impact right now: weight gain, decreased libido and lower grades," says Brown. "And we need to build on current strengths when it comes to strategies for students."

The purpose of the survey was to understand current sleep practices across campus and also find out the best ways to reach students in terms of education, prevention and awareness when it comes to sleep. Brown and her team are working with the U of A's Healthy Campus Unit to develop strategies and reach students-not only building on current strengths, but also reaching out to friends and family, which the survey shows are the first people students go to when they struggle with sleep.

In the meantime, Brown offers a few strategies to help students get the sleep they need.

Reader beware

"We found that, of all the strategies students use to help them go to sleep, reading and listening to music are two of the most popular," says Brown. "These are great strategies, but they need to done correctly."

For reading, Brown says typically everyone is reading on a computer, e-reader or mobile device. "We can't just tell students to stop with the screen time before bed-that's just not realistic. The advice should be to avoid blue-spectrum light. There are special goggles and apps you can download that filter the light, which will help increase your body's natural melatonin and help you go to sleep."

Mozart > Taylor Swift

Listening to music can help you get to bed and help you stay asleep, says Brown. She is quick to add, though, that choice of music is the key. "Songs should be 60-70 beats per minute, so we're talking classical music, music without words. For example, "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift is 160 beats per minute, which may have the opposite effect on sleep!"

Routine, routine, routine

The good thing about heading back to school is that students have a schedule and structure, and that's good for sleep. "Sticking to a sleep schedule will help you regulate your circadian rhythm," says Brown. "Have a bedtime routine. Relax before you go to bed and take a warm bath or shower, which helps raise your core body temperature before you go to sleep."

More sleep strategies

  • Stick to a sleep schedule: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the evening.
  • Alcohol interferes with restorative sleep, so try not to drink close to bedtime.
  • Don't exercise within two hours of bedtime.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  • Don't take a nap after 3 p.m.
  • Relax before bed; for example, do self-massage or listen to soft music or a taped book.
  • Take a warm bath or shower before bed to raise your core body temperature.
  • Create a sleeping environment that is quiet, cool and dark. Heat, noise and light are not helpful for sleeping.
  • It is very important to eliminate light in the bedroom! If you must fall asleep with the TV on, be sure to set the sleep timer so you are not exposed to light all night long.
  • The light from electronic devices like tablets and laptops interferes with sleep. Avoid using them within an hour of bedtime.
  • Try a white-noise machine or a fan to block out background noise.
  • See a doctor if you snore. Snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea and could require treatment.