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Sleep-deprived college students more likely to self-medicate

Consumer Reports News: August 13, 2009 03:32 PM

Stressed-out and sleep-deprived, college students are frequently taking OTC and prescription drugs, according to a study published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers found that 68 percent of college students, age 17 to 24, reported trouble sleeping because of stress about school and life. Only 30 percent of the 1,125 students surveyed reported getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night, the average requirement for young adults. And students with poor quality of sleep frequently used OTC, prescription, and recreational drugs and alcohol to regulate sleep and wakefulness

It’s no surprise that stress about school, exams, and relationships are keeping young adults up at night. These finding echo results from our recent sleep survey that shows that, among our adult respondents who had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, high stress levels was the most common cause. What’s more worrisome than the stress levels are students’ use of drugs as an accepted treatment for sleep troubles since alternating drugs to fall asleep and stay awake could create patterns of drug dependence. A 2005 University of Arizona study showed that 90 percent of adolescents entering drug rehab programs reported self-medicating with psychoactive drugs to control sleep and combat fatigue. And we recently reported that prolonged use of some sleep drugs could lead to dependency, "rebound insomnia," and serious side effects.

Bottom line: If you have a child who’s heading back to campus, send them back with some non-drug recommendations on how to maintain good sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid large meals before bed
  • Avoid tobacco and drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol for a few hours before bedtime (Alcohol can help you get to sleep, but it may cause you to wake up later and stop you from getting back to sleep.)
  • Dormitory mattresses can be uncomfortable, and a bad mattress can mean a poor sleep quality. If your child’s dorm allows it, consider sending your child back to school with a better mattress.
  • Try to keep your room cool and quiet. Ask loud roommates to tone it down—and if that doesn’t work—ask for a room transfer.
  • Take fewer naps during the day. But if you feel tired, nap for no longer than 30 minutes in the afternoon.
  • Step away from the computer, and the TV. It’s not easy to turn off the tech, but you need to be calm to get a good night’s sleep. Late-night use of electronics will stimulate you.
  • Learn how to relax and de-stress. See our simple, do-it-yourself ways to cope with stress.
  • Get regular exercise—but allow at least 4 hours between exercise and going to bed.

Ginger Skinner

If you think your child has a serious sleep problem, talk to your doctor about it and take a look at Treatment Ratings (subscribers only) to find out which drug and non-drug treatments are most effective and our free Best Buy Drugs report on low-cost drug options for insomnia.


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