A college student’s guide to sleep

When it comes to time management in college, most people think of time commitments like a triangle, with the three most important endeavors at each of the three corners of the triangle: (1) schoolwork, (2) social life, and (3) adequate sleep. The catch? You’re only allowed to pick two of the three. It’s supposedly impossible to balance all three things, so one has to go. Oftentimes, sleep is the thing that gets cut out.

This logic is completely bogus, because with proper time management you should be able to fit all three aspects of college life into your schedule. Also, sleep shouldn’t be your first choice to cut out. Proper sleep at night truly enhances your quality of life, making it easier to focus during the day. It improves mental health, increases creativity, and prevents certain health issues later in life, such as strokes, high blood pressure, and neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Sleep is the time when your body repairs itself from whatever you were doing physically during the day. Whether hard workouts or just walking up and down Dubuque’s hills, your muscles are constantly breaking down. Sleep is one of the best times for your metabolism to kick into high gear and rebuild those worn-down tissues.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults in the age range of 18 to 25 are supposed to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. To put this in perspective, let’s say you go to bed at midnight. Tack on the 10-20 minutes it takes your body to relax into Stage I sleep, and you’re looking at a 7:15 or 9:15 a.m. alarm. If you’re the type of person who needs a lot of sleep and you have a lot of 8 a.m. classes, shoot for a 10 or 11 p.m. bedtime. That way, even if you’re the type of person who gets up an hour before class, you’ll still get enough sleep before starting your day.

Okay, that’s fine, but what if I’m the type of person who chronically stays up past midnight, and wakes up around 7 or 8 a.m. every morning? This might be a more realistic representation of the college lifestyle. If this sounds like you, scheduled naps might be your new best friend — as long as you can achieve REM sleep. What’s REM sleep, you ask? Let’s talk about what happens when you fall asleep.

As mentioned, it typically takes 10-20 minutes for a non-sleep-deprived person to settle into Stage I sleep. If it takes shorter or longer than this, your body is probably trying to tell you something. Either you’re not getting enough sleep, or you did something to affect your sleep schedule — like drinking caffeine too close to bedtime, taking a long nap during the day, or eating a big meal before bedtime. Side note: save yourself a few bucks by not ordering that large pizza at 1 a.m.; big meals before bed make it harder to fall asleep, and worsen your quality of sleep.

Eventually you’ll fall asleep, into Stage 1 NREM (non-rapid eye movement) Sleep: you’re “asleep,” but can be easily woken up, like if your roommate comes into the room and is making a lot of noise. This is the stage where you have  random muscle spasms; if you’ve ever experienced that, it’s because you were in Stage 1 sleep.

The next stage is Stage 2 NREM Sleep. This is where it’s harder to wake the sleeping person. Your body temperature decreases and your heart rate begins to slow. This stage comprises 40-60% of your total sleep time. The next stage is Stage 3 NREM Sleep. This is the “deep sleep” stage. Your muscles haven’t quite been “paralyzed” yet, so this is where you can find people sleepwalking or talking in their sleep.

Finally, we arrive at the last and most important stage of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This stage of sleep occurs at the tail end of every 90-120 minutes of sleep (90 for the first cycle, roughly 120 for every cycle thereafter). REM sleep is where you experience your most vivid dreams. For this reason, you experience muscle paralysis to keep you from acting out your dreams. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of a REM cycle, you’ve probably experienced sleep paralysis, where your eyes are open and you feel awake, but your body is unable to move. This can be frightening if you don’t know why it’s happening — now you know.

Most people make it through 4-5 cycles of sleep (Stage 2 to Stage 3 to REM, then back to Stage 2, etc.) every night. That is the recommended amount. If you wake in the middle of a REM stage, you’ll feel groggy for a few minutes to a few hours after waking. That’s why it’s important to plan your amount of sleep around the time length of the cycles. Don’t forget to tack on the 10-20 minutes it takes you to fall asleep.

When it comes to good naps, we often find ourselves glorifying the 20-minute power nap. While this is definitely a great thing, 20 minutes isn’t enough time to fall asleep and get the benefits of a REM cycle. The best nap length would probably be a full 90 minutes of sleep time — maybe even rounded up to 100 minutes, to give yourself time to fall asleep — so you experience one full cycle of sleep. Just make sure you set a timer. We’re not advocating for nap roulette here. Bottom line: as a college student, you need your NREM and REM sleep. How you get that sleep is up to you.

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