On Campus

Dorm life's heavy toll on your sleep schedule

Experts tell us what causes sleep deprivation, and what you can do about it

Bedtime rituals at home for 19-year-old Maddy Crawford include cookies and milk and propping the bedroom door open before she climbs into the double bed in a room she has to herself.

Crawford likes her sleep and goes to bed at a reasonable hour. But all that is set to change this fall when she moves into a shared dorm room at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“It will be weird living with someone and not having everything just – there,” says Crawford, who plans to take earplugs when she leaves her Peterborough, Ont., home for school.

Adapting to life at university – and particularly to residence, with a roommate in close proximity and noisy neighbours – could put her regular sleep pattern out of whack. And experts say that can lead to students racking up a sleep deficit that keeps them from functioning well, both physically and mentally.

With little sleep and lots of stress, students are vulnerable to irritability and depression, says Colin Shapiro, director of the Youthdale Child and Adolescent Sleep Centre in Toronto. Existing conditions such as diabetes, chronic fatigue and asthma can also worsen with sleep deprivation.

For a list of dorm-room sleeping tips, click here.

He says a lot of memory consolidation occurs during sleep, and having too little can impair cognitive performance at the very time students are being stretched academically.

“Most people have the odd notion that just because they’re a human being, they are born to be capable of sleeping well,” says Shapiro, but that’s not always the case.

The good news is that in itself, the move to a dorm usually creates only temporary sleep difficulties. Most people find it hard to sleep in a new environment – whether a hotel room or an army barrack – but the problem usually doesn’t persist more than a few days, he says.

Only those students who are particularly sensitive to noise and other distractions will have long-term trouble sharing a dorm room.

Last year, Karen Werden moved from her home in Aurora, Ont., to a residence at the University of Waterloo. She chose to stay in a shared dorm room to be close to classes and force herself to get to know people.

Werden, 19, says she needs eight hours’ sleep, and if she doesn’t get it, she zones out during the day, unable to focus on what’s happening in class.

Three weeks into first year, her roommate dropped out, so Werden had the space to herself. But in second term, she acquired a new dorm mate who slept much of the day and stayed out late. Werden often found herself still wide awake until 2 or 3 a.m.

Throughout the year, Werden got a lot less sleep than she had at home. She didn’t consider going to bed before midnight, and only began thinking about getting some shut-eye at 1 a.m., when the residence began to quiet down.

“It’s not even loud partying and music,” she says. “Just, people are up and about and active.”

Her marks dropped by 10 per cent in first term and slipped again in second term. She went from an 85 per cent average in high school to grades in the high 60s or low 70s.

The lack of sleep contributed, Werden concedes. One day a week, she had three classes back-to-back. Too tired to attend them all, she began skipping one and failed an accounting course. “I would try to study and I was never much of a studier in high school, so it wasn’t something I knew what I was doing with,” she says.

“In fact, I was so tired and out of it, I didn’t want to do anything but relax and watch TV.”

Shapiro says students need exactly the amount of sleep that makes them feel refreshed and able to function well. But that amount can vary widely – six hours for some, 10 for others. A person who needs 10 hours’ sleep and gets only seven is just as sleep-deprived as someone who needs seven and gets four, he says.

While light is the biggest influence on the body’s internal clock, social cues also have an effect, he says. In general, young people whose body clocks are adjusting to shorter adult sleep patterns will have trouble regulating their sleep – even without the added complications of residence life.

“If you’re having much more social interaction because you’re in a university residence than you did at home, that’s going to be a problem,” he says.

Shapiro says sleep improves when people develop a regular routine that includes exercise and healthy eating. Eating at odd times or drinking alcohol reduces the quality of sleep. Coffee is helpful as a temporary measure, but “the only real solution for lack of sleep is sleep,” he says.

It’s just as important to get professional help if you run into persistent trouble. Letting a sleep deficit grow only makes matters worse.

Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre of Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, says young people accustomed to a rigid routine at home are more likely to have trouble in a group living environment.

Excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine or food is a common problem that can have a severe impact on sleep quality. As students get less sleep, their appetite goes up, driving them to eat calorie-dense food and to gain weight.

Samuels says students should limit alcohol intake to one drink with dinner; caffeine is great first thing in the morning, but threatens sleep after noon.

Difficulty sleeping in university can also predict future episodes of depression, he says. Someone who is depressed will have trouble sleeping, but the reverse is also true.

“People don’t respect the importance of sleep, especially young people. They can get chronically overwrought.”

Some students develop delayed sleep phase syndrome, becoming night owls who avoid going to class before noon and struggle to write a daytime exam. The habit becomes a problem when they finish school and try to keep normal hours, Samuels says.

But he bristles at the notion of taking sleeping pills or melatonin, a hormone that affects circadian rhythms and quality of sleep. Over-the-counter medications are totally inappropriate, he says. Anyone who feels the need to buy them should see a doctor.

“They are struggling, and this ain’t a small issue that they can fix.”

Tips for good sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid vigorous exercise within two hours of bedtime
  • Avoid sleeping in after a night of poor sleep.
  • Avoid watching or checking the clock.
  • Avoid excessive liquids or heavy evening meals.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed.
  • Maintain a quiet, dark and comfortable sleep environment.
  • Schedule a wind-down period before bed.

Source: Adult Insomnia: Diagnosis to Management www.topalbertadoctors.org

– The Canadian Press