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Taking control of your sleep

How can you make your sleep more productive, and are we misinformed about it?

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Sleep is undoubtedly an overlooked aspect of life, primarily because the effects of insufficient sleep are not as widely known as they could be. For college students, especially, sleep should be a priority; but in reality, it is often neglected.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they’re not performing very well because they have been sleep-deprived for so long that they don’t even know how it feels to be rested,” Stella Loichot, a health and lifestyle coach and nutrition and weight management specialist, said. “They don’t see sleep as something productive.”

Dr. Jennifer Watson, a psychologist, explained that people can see sleep as “negotiable,” but “the problem is that sleep and rest are just as important as activity and productivity.”

To convert sleep into something we are attentive to and not something that is overlooked  requires good sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene is the “combination of behaviors and habits and rituals that are going to lead to more sleep and also to better quality sleep,” Loichot said.

Healthy sleep hygiene includes maintaining a routine, creating a comfortable sleeping environment, and not doing your work in bed.

Routines are especially beneficial to sleep.

“Routines provide environmental, behavioral, and emotional cues that prime you for sleep,” Watson said in an email. “You don’t have to work hard to try to sleep, it happens more naturally.”

This method of actively doing the same things every night before bed will decrease anxiety and make you more comfortable in your space.

The frustrating feelings of not being able to sleep can become associated with your bed according to Watson, so having a positive environment and routine associated only with sleep is conducive to good long-term rest.

Also, getting a healthy amount of sleep coincides with sleep hygiene. If you go to sleep in the early hours of the morning, this habit can be detrimental to your wellness.

“It’s actually pretty … true that the hours in the first part of the night before midnight are super important because that’s when we go into deep sleep and that’s the [stage] that allows us to regenerate and feel rested,” Loichot said. “If you are not in phase with … the earth and the night and day cycle, you get kind of disconnected and your sleep is going to be suffering from that.”

Wendy Lendrum, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the UW, also weighed in on the importance of adequate rest.

“Most people that I speak with are not getting the average number of recommended hours of sleep per night,” she said in an email. “It is expected that one would be tired and have poor memory retention if a person is only getting five hours of sleep per night.”

This reality of sleep deprivation is prevalent in many college students, which is why attention must be placed on its importance to health.

“Sleep hygiene is getting more attention lately partially because the research on the impact of poor sleep is getting more media attention,” Watson said.

Sleep hygiene’s attention means that we are taking active steps in trying to understand how to improve our sleep, but sleep is complex and requires more than just dipping your feet in the process and disregarding the constructive steps taken to improve it.

“If we really want to improve our sleep, we have to focus on everything else [other] than sleep,” Loichot said.

Worrying about sleep is a vicious cycle, and if one step does not fix all of your sleep problems, this causes more stress about not sleeping and the anxiety continues. Tapping into the crux of the stress in your daily life that makes it more difficult to sleep can help resolve sleeping problems.

“Don’t lose sleep over losing sleep,” Watson said.

When students are struggling to sleep, they may look up common steps to improve sleep. Some myths that students may read are not true and need to be debunked.

Snoring, for example, can be harmful.

“If you routinely feel excessive daytime sleepiness, wake up with headaches, a sore throat, it might [be] a sign of something more serious like obstructive sleep apnea,” Watson said.

Another myth is that many people think feeling colder temperature will keep them awake. But, this myth has an upside and a downside. A little cold air can help alertness, but too much will lead to more sleepiness.

“If you stay exposed to the cold … too much … it leads to your body temperature to go down,” Loichot said. “Then that’s when, because the temperature goes down … your body is going to produce more melatonin, and then you’re going to be even more tired.”

The classic method of “counting sheep” is also ineffective.

“The ideal thing is to do something that is not going to require too much concentration and too much effort, and that is also not going to be getting you all excited,” Loichot said.

The weekend is a sacred time for students to relax and catch up on sleep, or so they think.

“It is not possible to truly catch up on sleep on weekends,” Lendrum said. “Sleep deficits are cumulative and unable to be reversed.”

All of the information you are trying to retain during the week is lost without the proper amount of sleep, according to Loichot.

“You can catch up in the sense that, because you're so tired, you can sleep really well and probably longer,”  Loichot said. But “what’s been lost is lost.”

So, the idea that you can catch up on sleep over the weekends does not help you in the long run. In fact, throwing your sleep patterns off by having irregular hours of sleep is also detrimental.

I have definitely lost sleep over the fact that I could not fall asleep or fought the urge to sleep so I could keep studying, but the fact that I already have a solid and comfortable routine gives me the confidence in knowing that I am on the right track to further improving my sleep.

Sleep hygiene and the general concept of sleep are vital to our health, and little steps at a time can be taken to ensure a healthy lifestyle, beginning with sleep.

Reach writer Kendall Kitahara at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kendallyk1

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