The science of sleep

College students are notorious for their erratic sleep schedules – but at what cost?

For thousands of years, the mysteries of sleep have fascinated scientists. Intuitively, we know that sleep makes us feel more energetic and upbeat, and it increases our general sense of wellbeing. While we slumber, incredibly complex processes are occuring that restore both the mind and body.

Realistically, most of us are guilty of silencing all twelve alarms set the night before – mornings are chaotic and rushed. Ideally we should wake without an alarm each morning, feeling fully refreshed and energized.

Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep schedules are highly prevalent among college students and can have consequences such as decreased concentration, impaired mood, and poor academic performance. Correcting your schedule can optimize the body’s processes while you sleep and give you the power to start the day on a less stressful and more productive note.

As your body prepares for sleep, muscles relax, brain wave activity slows, and you enter a drowsy, dreamlike state. You may experience mild hallucinations or hypnic jerks as the first transition from waking to sleep occurs.

During this process, brain waves increase in amplitude and become more synchronous, producing alpha and theta waves. Theta waves are a characteristic feature of deep relaxation and signify that the first stage of sleep has officially begun.

Some sleep deprived individuals may fall into a micro-sleep during the day, at which time theta waves replace alpha wave activity in the brain. The implications behind this are worrisome, as the micro-sleeper does not usually recognize they were sleeping and can fall into this dangerous phase while driving or operating heavy machinery.

The body lowers its heart rate and temperature as it enters stage two. This is the first stage of non-REM sleep and is thought to protect the brain from awakening when it enters deep sleep.

REM sleep characterizes what we know as dreaming sleep. During this phase, large, slow brain waves occur. The biological purpose of dreams are not fully understood, but it is theorized that the dream state is where our brains sort and store memories, process emotions, and facilitate creative thoughts.

For students, sleep can feel like a luxury that’s hard to afford. Many of us feel pressure from school, employment, and personal goals, and forfeit sleep in order to meet responsibilities. However, small adjustments can ease this process and leave us feeling more rested while we still accomplish everything in our daily planner.

Committing to good sleep hygiene is no waste of time – maintaining a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends, is key. This allows the body to find its natural rhythm and settle into a regular sleep-wake cycle. On average, sleep cycles are around 90 minutes. Tools such as sleep calculators exist to help time rest so that naturally, deep sleep is not interrupted.

Our biological clock, or circadian rhythm, is often interrupted by the modern world. Alarms, schedules, and blue light emitted from electronic devices in particular can throw our internal clock out of balance. The high influx of information from our devices shortly before bed may increase restlessness and inhibit the release of melatonin. Limiting devices two to three hours before sleep may help counteract this.

With a few adjustments, we can eliminate these biological interruptions, reduce stress, and make it to our 8:30 classes on time – perhaps even with fresh coffee in tow.

[Editor’s Note: Dia Kilgore has an associate degree in biology from Quinsigamond Community College. Information in her article comes from previous classes, studies, and academic research articles.]