ONU researchers explain how college students can get better sleep.
With finals week approaching, many students will sacrifice the luxury of sleep for a few more hours of studying. While less-than-ideal sleep habits are probably unavoidable this time of year, ongoing research at Ohio Northern University demonstrates how education can improve student sleep overall.
Dr. Kraynok’s Sleep Tips for Finals
- Keep a regular bedtime and wake time.
- Try to get a full eight hours of sleep.
- Take advantage of memory consolidation, which happens during sleep:
- Review material before you go to bed.
- Schedule naps during long periods of studying.
- Do not consume caffeine up to six hours before going to bed.
- Develop a relaxing routine before going to bed:
- Take a warm bath.
- Listen to soothing music.
- Even deep breathing exercises can help.
- Write down your thoughts and worries before you go to sleep so they're not ruminating in your brain.
- Limit your exposure to light before bed. If your roommate is up late studying, use an eye mask to block out light.
For the past two years, Dr. Megan Kraynok, assistant professor of psychology, has investigated sleep patterns of college students and how those patterns change when students are taught the importance of sleep and how to attain it. With the help of student research assistants, she has shown that when college students consider their personal sleep habits and sleep hygiene, their sleep quality increases over time.
For college students especially, getting the proper amount of sleep is important. According to Kraynok, adolescents experience a biological shift that causes them to go to bed later and wake later. This shift persists into young adulthood, and recent research indicates that many activities in which college students engage during the evening — watching television, spending time online, texting friends, playing video games — can reinforce later bedtimes.
But college students aren’t the only ones who should work to develop better sleep habits. The benefits of getting better sleep are universal, as are the consequences of not getting enough.
“Most people don’t know the subsequent problems that come along with not getting enough sleep,” says Kraynok. “We know that people who routinely don’t get enough sleep are at risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, issues with immunity and all kinds of problems with daytime functioning.”
To put this in perspective, consider that someone who drives a car after being awake for 17 hours makes the same number of mistakes as someone driving with a .08 blood-alcohol level.
By putting sleep into a context that makes it easier to understand, Kraynok’s lab has been able to show that education alone can improve sleep.
“We found that students who received lectures and specific instruction on sleep actually did improve their sleep,” she says. “When students are sleep-deprived, they are less happy in class, and they don’t get the grades that they want. So, by hitting on those things — the things that students really do value, like their health and their academic performance — it can help them change their sleep habits for the better.”
Kraynok’s lab relies on two groups of ONU students for its data. The first group comprises students taking PSYC 2201 (Health Psychology), in which the subject of sleep is an area of focus. The second group, the control group, comprises students in 100-level psychology and sociology courses — courses that do not include sleep education.
Lauren Hurd, BA ’12, and Amanda Amstutz, a junior psychology major from Bluffton, Ohio, are two of the many research assistants in Kraynok’s sleep lab. They surveyed students in both groups twice over the span of a semester with detailed questions about their sleep habits, diet and exercise. The research assistants then cataloged and analyzed the data to see if students who received sleep education reported better sleep.
“We found that students
who received lectures
and specific instruction
on sleep actually did
improve their sleep,”
Hurd and Amstutz went beyond running the experiment, authoring research that they presented along with their professor at the annual Associated Professional Sleep Society meeting in Boston, Mass., last June. Hurd was the primary author on her own study based on the lab’s data that demonstrated that students with regular bedtimes have better sleep quality than students with irregular bedtimes. Amstutz was the secondary author on Kraynok’s initial research linking education to improved sleep.
“My involvement in the sleep lab has changed my opinion about sleep 100 percent,” says Amstutz. “I always knew that sleep was important but not to the extent that it really is. We sleep a third of our lives, yet so little is known by the general public.”
Kraynok is pleased to see her students taking the steps to become researchers in their own right.
“It’s heartening because that’s a goal of ours: to make sure our students are able to hit the ground running when it comes to research,” she says. “Usually our students are way ahead of students from other colleges and universities in graduate school because they have already done their own projects.”
For Amstutz, the experience of working in a research lab and presenting at an international conference is a point of pride, but being able to work so closely with her professor is what she will always remember.
“If I could stay in Dr. Kraynok’s lab forever, I would,” she says. “I never thought I would enjoy research, but now I really do.”