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Sleep: What You Really Need

Six tips for getting a better night’s sleep

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Sanford Auerbach, an associate professor of neurology at the School of Medicine. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Elephants can perform their required daily tasks with only three hours of sleep a night, but college students need a little more. And many don’t get it. That’s too bad, because our college years are a time when we should be performing at our best, and that’s impossible to do when we are sleep-deprived.

“College can he stressful,” says Sanford Auerbach, an associate professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Boston Medical Center. “College students should probably have two hours more of sleep than they get. Most adults, on average, need between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep per night to be at their best.” Auerbach cites a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation suggesting that most people get less than seven hours of sleep a night during the workweek.

What kind of damage can be done by sleep deprivation? Auerbach says concentration becomes difficult, memory works poorly, and moodiness can set in. Studies show that someone who has been awake for 24 hours has the awareness and reflexes of someone with a blood-alcohol content of 0.1, which is at or above the legal limit for drunk driving in most states. A lack of sleep affects the body’s metabolism, increases susceptibility to diseases such as diabetes, and may have an effect on the immune system.

Auerbach suggests that students who find themselves suffering from symptoms of sleep deprivation do what the body wants them to do: take a nap. “Most people have a natural napping time,” he says. “It is often in the middle of the afternoon. If you’re sleep-deprived, that’s when you’ll start to feel tired.”

Sometimes, he says, too little sleep results from something more serious than bad habits. He suggests that students whose sleep problems interfere with their daytime function talk to their doctor about sleep disorders. A sleep disorder, according to Auerbach, can be anything that disrupts your sleep. It may mean having trouble falling asleep, having trouble getting adequate sleep, or just waking up at odd times. It’s also possible, he says, to sleep fine at night, but require more sleep than the normal eight hours to feel rested.

Six tips to a better night’s sleep, from the National Sleep Foundation and from Sanford Auerbach:

Don’t drink anything with caffeine for six to eight hours before you go to bed, and remember that chocolate also has caffeine in it.

Relax before you go to sleep. This may mean listening to calming music, watching a movie, or reading in bed.

Focus on counting backwards from 1,000, or try to focus on relaxing every muscle in your body.

Don’t worry about problems as you go to sleep; there’s usually nothing you can at 2 a.m. anyway. If you can’t get a problem out of your head, write it down on a piece of paper next to your bed and tend to it when you wake up the next day.

Exercise has been proven to make you sleep better at night.

Limit your napping time. The more you nap, the harder it is to fall asleep at night. A 30-minute power-nap is all most of us need.

Want to know what kind of sleeper you are? Take this quiz.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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