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We welcome the Student Wellness Center to our Student Success Blog.  This is the first installment in an anticipated series addressing important self-care topics.  We are relying on the expertise of the staff at the Student Wellness Center to guide our students to better health and better academic success.  Our author this week is Dr. Kelly Kilgore, M.D., a resident physician in the Student Wellness Center.

picture of a dog sleepingSleep is a naturally recurring state characterized by altered consciousness.  Good sleep plays an important role in physical health, mental health, and quality of life.  It is vital to many of the body’s mechanisms including restoration of the immune, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems and is important in maintaining mood, memory, and cognitive performance.  The body resorts to an anabolic state during sleep which allows these restorative processes to take over.  The sleep state is also important in hormone regulation including insulin and plays a role in decreasing risk for ailments such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.  Good sleep promotes improvements in cognitive function, in better overall health outcomes, in immune function, and in weight maintenance.

Sleep is a time for development of new neuronal connections, and these pathways are essential to learning and remembering new information. Good sleep also promotes focus, concentration, decision-making, and emotional stability.  These benefits are especially important for students who rely on optimal focus and retention of learned information to be successful.  It’s clear that good sleep is needed for us to be at our best.  However, sleep is often the first thing that busy (and stressed) people squeeze out of their schedules.  Good sleep habits are practices that can help busy people in improving sleep quality.

Here are some tips:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to avoid disruption in sleep-wake rhythm.
  • Use the bed for sleeping and sexual activity only. Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark.  White noise machines, fans, eyeshades, blackout curtains, or earplugs can be helpful.
  • Avoid large meals close to bedtime, but a light snack such as milk, cheese or peanut butter can be helpful. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, especially in the evenings.
  • Spend some time outside every day. Get moderate physical activity, but avoid exercising right before bedtime.
  • Avoid naps as this disrupts the drive to sleep at night.  But, if you must nap, keep it before 3 pm and brief (ideally 30 minutes or less).
  • Have a bedtime routine that incorporates relaxation practices.  During this time, avoid artificial light provided by electronic devices.  If you have difficulty quieting your thoughts, try setting aside some time in the evening specifically for thinking, planning, and problem-solving.  Jot down your thoughts so you can set them aside for the next morning.
  • If you are awake in bed for more than 20 or 30 minutes, get up out of bed and do a quiet activity such as light reading and return to bed when you feel that you could fall asleep with ease.
  • If you find you are not falling asleep, do not “try” harder to go to sleep. This can backfire and stimulate you to be more awake.  Just think of something “soothing” and “relaxing”.

picture of a dopg yawing before a good sleepChronic insomnia affects 10-15% of the population.  If you are having trouble sleeping, know that you are not alone! There are numerous reasons for poor sleep including genetics, mental health problems, substance abuse, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless legs, narcolepsy, and circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Warning signs for sleep disorders include unrefreshing sleep with adequate sleep time, witnessed apneas, snoring, or falling asleep at inappropriate times such as while driving, or during a conversation.  If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder or an untreated mood disorder affecting your sleep, please see your doctor for an evaluation.