College Insomniacs Resort to Sleeping Pills

Alexandra Moore goes to bed when most people are fast asleep—around 4 in the morning. She wakes up at noon the next day and usually naps again at 6 p.m.

"I can get up if I know I have to be somewhere," said Moore, a senior at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. "I can definitely get up, but as soon as I come back, I need to nap. Or I'll just drink a Red Bull."

Moore says she has had insomnia and other sleeping problems throughout her life, and now takes sleeping medication to help her relax and fall asleep at night.

Jeffrey Newell takes a sleep medicine, too, to cope with the stresses and everyday pressures he faces in school.

"The major problem I was having was not just that I couldn't sleep, but that I couldn't stop my brain from thinking," said Newell, a senior at Onondaga Community College. "It's something a lot of college students go through: stress with their studies. You're reading all day and you're writing all day and it's hard to turn your brain off."

Hike in Prescription Pill Use

They're not alone. A recent report by the health care business of Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Reuters News, reveals that hundreds of college-age students across the country are turning to sleep meds to get some shuteye. The study found that use of prescription sleep aids has nearly tripled among 18-to-24-year-olds over the last 10 years.

Few know this better than Newell. After transferring to Ithaca College last year, he didn't get a good night's sleep for weeks.

"There is just a lot of anxiety with taking your classes, meeting new people, making sure you know where you're going, making sure you have the books that you need, that you're prepared for all of your classes," he said. "It's almost as if every single class is your life."

He made the tough decision to take sleep medicine when it was clear that his problem wasn't going away.

"As long as I was healthy, I was happy," he said. "But it gets to a point where insomnia and lack of sleep can be crippling. You have a real disadvantage in your life -- you have a lack of energy and your brain just works overtime.

Stress in school, coupled with juggling a part-time job, prompted Carly Ropchak to turn to a sleep aid.

"I was working; every moment that I wasn't in class, I was working," said Ropchak, a SUNY ESF senior. "So I just got really stressed out. You just lay awake and you think about everything and everything that stresses you out.

"It's literally the worst experience ever," she added. "I cannot stand the feeling of knowing that everyone else is sleeping, happy and comfortable in their beds, when I'm awake."

Moore started to take sleep medication when her grades began to suffer.

"At first, it was actually kind of convenient to have insomnia because I got to have more fun," she said. "But, I also did really badly in school, so I probably should have been on it sooner."

When Ropchak started having trouble sleeping, she didn't wait to find out the cause of her problem.

"I started staying up late and watching TV just to entertain myself and I ended up getting into this horrible regimen of sleeping really late in the day so then I couldn't sleep at night," she said. "I was skipping classes and it was bad. But I didn't try to rectify it any other way -- I kind of went straight for [the medication]."

Millions Suffer

According to the National Sleep Foundation , about 50 million Americans chronically suffer from sleep problems and disorders that can affect all aspects of their lives. And, judging from the spike in sleep aid use, many of these are college students.

"Our society has become stressed," said Dr. Akram Khan, a sleep medicine expert at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "Stress has gone up -- and for students, it's even more. Not only do they have to maintain their careers, they also have a very active social life. Especially if you're out partying with your friends on weekends all night until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., and then you expect to have a regular sleep cycle."

But Khan said he doesn't believe that rising stress levels are the only reason for an increase in use of sleep medication among college kids.

"I would say that the biggest factor is the marketing that these drug companies are doing," said Khan. "The ads offer an easy fix and people want some kind of a magical fix."

Although the ads mention that these medications can cause headaches, nausea, dependency and should not be mixed with alcohol, Khan noted, "All this is spoken so fast that, even as a doctor, I find it rather difficult to follow what they're saying."

Most sleeping medications haven't been approved for long-term use beyond six months. "The ideal thing would be to use these drugs as a last resort measure and as a short-term measure to help you streamline your sleep," he said.

Students interviewed said they had not experienced any severe side effects from their sleep aids, but all recommended seeing a doctor before taking any kind of sleep medicine.

"Thinking about it now, I would definitely talk to a doctor," Ropchak said. "As much as I didn't think there were other things affecting why I wasn't sleeping, my doctor opened my eyes to what types of things were really the underlying causes. I think it's better to fix those before you turn to medicine."

It's been a year since Ropchak has taken sleep medication. Once she was able to maintain a normal sleep pattern, she didn't need it anymore. Moore and Newell, however, still take sleep aids to get a full night's sleep.

"College is supposed to be the best time of your life," said Newell. "If you need medicine to help you sleep to make that experience better for you, then do it. The rewards outweighed the risks for me and I'm in a great place right now because I took a chance."

Khan warned that inability to sleep could be a symptom of a deeper problem. "It could be something as simple as insomnia, but it could be something like mild depression," he said. "It's definitely good to go to your primary care physician and talk to them."

Tips for Getting Shuteye

For those spending long hours in the chem lab or working a double shift at the local coffee shop, Khan offered the following tips for a good night's sleep:

Kick that caffeine. "You have to move a little bit away from the Starbuck's culture," Khan said. "If you have that caramel frappucchino -- and you have like six of them in a day -- they will have so much caffeine that you might still have half a cup to a cup lying in your body at the end of the day." The bottom line: Set a deadline for yourself and don't drink anything with caffeine beyond that time. That means no after dinner tea (unless it's decaf).

Try a bedtime ritual. "You want your mind to have a little ritual so that it knows it has to slow down," Khan said. Turn your alarm clock away so that you're not focused on watching it get later and later. Dim the lights and try to have a regular schedule. The bottom line: Make a plan and stick to it and you'll be snoozing in no time.

Turn off the tube. Don't watch TV or listen to loud music in bed. "You want to find out who killed whom on the TV show and that can really keep you up," Khan said. "If you're reading a long book that, too, can keep you up." The bottom line: Keep your bed for just sleeping -- you can watch TV on the couch.

Exercise earlier. "Avoid working out late," Khan advised. "If you're going to go for a run at 11 p.m., your body might be revved up and your metabolism high, making it difficult for you to go off to sleep." The bottom line: You don't need to work on your abs of steel at 4 in the morning.

Cut the booze. "Have alcohol in moderation," Khan suggested. "God only knows what Red Bull and vodka -- which is very popular on campuses -- does. You can have all sorts of interactions."

Find the source. "Try to find out what behavioral change is causing you to maintain your insomnia and maintain sleep disruption and try to change that behavior," Khan said. "Because unless you change something, it will never fix itself." The bottom line: Discover the cause of your problem. It's the best way back to sweet dreams.