Venture onto a college campus on any given weekend (including finals week) and you'll find students stumbling from one party to the next, visibly intoxicated. Some leave the party early, others don't remember making it back at all. The partygoers are often drunk and under the influence of marijuana when returning home. What college students often don't realize is that these two substances -- alcohol and marijuana -- are negatively affecting their sleep.
College students already have a difficult time getting enough sleep. A 2014 University of Alabama study found that 60 percent of college students are not getting a healthy amount of sleep. Students are overloading themselves with school, work, internships and other extracurriculars. As Arianna Huffington wrote in her recent article, college students have embraced the motto of "sleep, grades, social life: pick two." While college students try to catch up on sleep on the weekends, often times they do so under the influence of substances that can be counterintuitive to getting a good night of sleep.
Effects of alcohol on REM sleep
Although drinking alcohol before bed can help you to fall asleep easier, it stops the brain from going into rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep is the restorative part of the sleep cycle. This is where you dream and where scientists believe you process what you learned that day to commit it to memory. When a person goes to bed drunk, the first half of the night is typically spent sedated. However, the National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke wants the focus on what occurs during the second part of the night.
"While alcohol does help people fall into light sleep, it also robs them of REM and the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. Instead, it keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep, from which they can be awakened easily."
Women metabolize alcohol more quickly than men and experience these restless nights to a higher extent after excessive drinking.
Effects of alcohol on sleep disorders
If you already have breathing-related sleep issues, drinking alcohol exacerbates the symptoms. Alcohol weakens the muscles in the upper part of the airway, causing people with sleep apnea to stop breathing more often during the night. A publication on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website outlines the effects alcohol on sleep apnea.
"Recurring episodes of apnea followed by arousal can occur hundreds of times each night, significantly reducing sleep time and resulting in daytime sleepiness. Those with alcoholism appear to be at increased risk for sleep apnea, especially if they snore."
Many who suffer from insomnia take sleep aids and drink alcohol to help fall asleep. However, the toxic cocktail to alcohol and sedatives is a dangerous combination. It can lead to falls, accidents, anxiety, depression and an inability to function properly after waking. In some extreme cases, mixing the two can lead to death.
Effects of marijuana on sleep
Marijuana use also affects REM sleep. While it does help you fall asleep, smoking pot won't get you the restful night you need. The brain spends less time in REM sleep and habitual users are less likely to dream across the board. According to a study posted in Sleep Medicine Reviews, sleep is also affected when a regular marijuana consumer goes through withdrawals.
"Difficulty sleeping and strange dreams are among the most consistently reported symptoms of acute and subacute cannabis withdrawal. Longer sleep onset latency, reduced slow wave sleep and a REM rebound can be observed."
So whether currently a habitual marijuana user or going through the withdrawal stages, you won't get a proper night's sleep until after the drug has left your system.
Alternatives to help you sleep
There are so many different natural ways to help yourself fall asleep. Light daily exercise can curb chronic insomnia and simply eating healthier can help you fall asleep. This may seem like a no brainer, but be sure to not drink coffee close to your bedtime. There are many guided listening podcasts that can help you relax your body. As much as you can, try to make your room -- and especially your bed -- just for sleeping. If you associate your room with stressful work, it will be more difficult for you to fall asleep. Also, establishing a consistent bedtime routine can help you fall asleep.
So take a night or two off
Ultimately, college students need all the sleep they can get. Taking a couple nights off from alcohol or marijuana use on the weekends can significantly increase the quality of sleep. And it'll save money too. It's a win-win situation.