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A crash course: The do’s and don’ts of dozing

Sleeping for dummies, from one dummy to another

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How to sleep

I can do a lot of things: I can finish any quote from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I can spend four hours in a TJ Maxx and be endlessly entertained, and I can recite all of Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” from memory. 

What I can’t do is sleep.

More specifically, I can’t fall asleep. 

Most of the sleep problems that college students have — and by extension, me —  can be traced back to a delayed circadian rhythm. 

A circadian rhythm is our body's internal clock. It’s what causes us to feel sleepy and energized at roughly the same times every day, regulating our levels of alertness with the time of day. A delayed rhythm is when your internal clock shifts ahead a couple of hours. 

Dr. Vishesh Kapur, UW’s director of sleep medicine, says this shift results in increased alertness late at night and a subsequent inability to fall asleep. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, adults require between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Most college students fall short of this requirement and end up building a sleep debt.

Sleep debt is exactly what it sounds like: sleep deprivation compounds on a nightly basis, resulting in longer-term sleep problems. 

A student who only gets five to six hours of sleep per night is already around 10 hours in debt by the end of the week. To make up for this, we tend to sleep in on weekends, but even those extra couple of hours aren’t enough to make up for the week. 

While hitting this target sleep goal isn’t always easy, there are things you can do to help yourself get close. 

For one, a consistent sleep schedule is key. 

A nightly routine is a good way to maintain consistency. Whether it's watching an episode (or eight) of whatever it is that you’re binging or relaxing with a face mask, doing it every day before sleeping will help you build a positive association between your routine and sleep.

Next, disengage. Turn off your phone, turn off your brain. Stop checking those emails; they’ll be there in the morning. 

This process of disconnecting lets your brain relax and avoid things that cause anxiety, which can impede sleep. 

“There is another part of sleep hygiene that is using the bed just for sleep,” Kapur said. 

This comes down to your brain’s psychological association with your bed. Studying or reading in bed creates a link in your brain between wakefulness and the bed. 

“If you spend more time in bed than you need, you spend more time awake in bed,” Kapur said. “And so, the association gets worse.”

Instead of being tired when you get into bed, your brain might use that as a cue to wake up. 

Alcohol right before bed can suppress some stages of sleep like REM sleep, which is required for memory consolidation. Alcohol also causes you to wake up in the middle of the night as it metabolizes. 

While alcohol does not directly cause sleep apnea, research has shown that habitual drinkers are at a higher risk for developing the disorder.

So, what actually causes you to fall asleep? 

Melatonin is the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm. It is produced in response to darkness and helps maintain your sleep cycle. Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter and can help with sleep disorders or even recovering after jet lag. 

As the world’s leading sleep struggler, I’ve grappled with the idea of taking melatonin for quite some time. 

“A lot of people use melatonin as a sleep aid, independent of changing the timing of their sleep,” Kapur said. “The danger there is that people end up on [a] high dose.”

Instead of relying on melatonin to fall asleep, Kapur recommends taking it in low doses a couple of hours before you intend on falling asleep to help shift a delayed circadian rhythm and move you to an earlier bedtime. 

It should be noted that depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders can often cause insomnia. Those conditions should be primarily addressed before adding treatment for insomnia itself. 

Overall, most healthy sleep habits involve cutting things out as opposed to actively adopting new habits. Even so, sleeping is hard. 

In an insane world, trying to turn your brain off and relaxing isn’t as simple as putting your phone away, but it’s a step. 

Reach Science Editor Ash Shah at Twitter: @itsashshah

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