Getting a good night's sleep as a college student is difficult enough. Between balancing numerous classes, extensive amounts of homework and a social life, one can find it nearly impossible to incorporate enough time for a decent rest.
Now imagine juggling that typical college schedule while managing two health conditions that interfere with your ability to sleep.
That is exactly the case of my sorority sister Laura. Laura is a rising senior at University of Alabama. Laura suffers from insomnia and periodic limb movement disorder. Insomnia is a condition that can make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep or both. Periodic Limb Movement Disorder, or PLMD, is repetitive cramping or jerking of the limbs during sleep. "Periodic" refers to the fact that the movements are repetitive and rhythmic.
Laura was officially diagnosed with insomnia in 2014 but says she's been struggling with the condition since she was in middle school eight years ago. She explained that she typically doesn't have too much trouble falling asleep, but will constantly wake up in the middle of the night around 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. Before she was formally diagnosed with insomnia, Laura said she had "followed all the 'typical rules': no activity an hour before bedtime, no electronics two hours before bedtime, regular exercise, and doses of melatonin at night."
"Between balancing numerous classes, extensive amounts of homework and a social life, one can find it nearly impossible to incorporate enough time for a decent rest. "
She was diagnosed with PLMD just six months ago after she completed an extensive sleep study. Laura told me that the disorder can be treated with several different medications but the process to find the medication that would be the best fit for her would be extremely lengthy and could take up to nine months to complete. According to Laura, "many of the medications had side effects that seemed worse than battling occasional exhaustion, so I decided at least during college I didn't want to begin the process." Nine months is practically an entire academic year - how could any college student find the time to endure such an extensive process?
Right now Laura is prescribed a sedative that affects chemicals in the brain that may be unbalanced in people with sleep problems. However, she is advised only to take it when in desperate need of sleep and hasn't slept in two days or more. "I only use it about 3-4 times a month," She said. "I'm usually more comfortable taking over-the-counter medication such as ZzzQuil."
I asked Laura to describe how the two disorders affect each other. "My doctor said my insomnia was likely partially caused by my periodic limb movement. I also was diagnosed with anxiety in 2012, so that plays a huge role in my insomnia as well." It's true--anxiety is said to be associated with insomnia according to the National Sleep Foundation. Laura also explained that although neither of her parents have been diagnosed with insomnia, both her mother and father have had trouble sleeping throughout their lives and are prescribed sleep aids.
"These conditions have undoubtedly made college difficult for me."
"These conditions have undoubtedly made college difficult for me," Laura said, detailing how the sleepless side effects of her disorders have an impact on her. "The day after not sleeping I'm in a complete fog, and have extreme difficulty focusing on class." After she's had a rough night or two, "I have to take a nap sometime in the afternoon in order to even complete my homework and assignments in the evening." The amount of sleep Laura gets varies throughout the week. "I can get a full 8 hours one night, then the next night only get 4 or 5. The worst is when I repeatedly get only 4 hours of sleep."
Although Laura's combination of conditions is uncommon, she is not alone. Believe it or not, a substantial number of college students are in a similar situation. A 2007-2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health concluded that 27%-28% of the 1,845 students evaluated suffer from - or are at risk for - at least one sleep disorder.
I was curious to know what Laura does in order to function at "the same level" as other students who do not have her ailments. Her main strategy seems to be one that many college students know all too well. "I drink an unhealthy amount of coffee in order to function on a daily basis. I still follow the rules of no caffeine after 2 p.m. in order for it to not affect my sleeping at night, but on average I probably have 3-4 cups of coffee a day." She mentioned that her coffee habits used to be MUCH worse. While she was in high school, she would have 32 ounces of coffee before school at 7 a.m. and would have another 32 ounces on the way to work in the afternoon. Her coffee intake would amount to 8 cups in a day!
"Although she is unable to completely control her insomnia and PLMD, Laura expressed that she is very diligent about taking the necessary steps to get a sound night of sleep."
I wanted to better understand how Laura copes with her illnesses. "I've tried to recognize when I'm exhausted and that it's just lack of sleep controlling my lack of focus." Although she is unable to completely control her insomnia and PLMD, Laura expressed that she is very diligent about taking the necessary steps to get a sound night of sleep. She stays away from caffeine in the afternoon, exercises, follows a healthy diet and goes to bed around the same time each night.
After learning about Laura's unique relationship with sleep I was truly inspired to see someone go the extra mile to ensure they are doing everything they can to practice healthy sleep habits. As someone who looks forward to hopping into bed each night to get my 8-9 hours of rest without much difficulty, Laura's story was incredible to hear and made me appreciate the sleep I get even more. If Laura can be a successful student, struggle with two sleep disorders and still manage to sustain optimal sleep practices, there is no reason why you can't, either!