This may not be what you think it is, at least I hope not!
Humans and animals all need to sleep, how much, when and where will vary but the constant is that sleep is an essential part to living and learning. The quality and quantity of our sleep is a major indicator of our overall health and wellbeing.
We spend up to a third of lives asleep and most of us know that getting a good night’s sleep is important, but too few make the recommended 8 hours between the sheets. This can lead to having a sleep debt and forgetting the feeling of being truly rested. This third of our life is far from unproductive as it plays a direct role in how energetic and successful the other two thirds of our life can be.
When we’re asleep the body re-energises cells, clears the brain of waste, and supports learning and memory; two pretty important factors when you’re a student. It also affects the way we look, behave, perform and impacts on our overall quality of life. At different ages we need different amounts of sleep. Typically teenagers need at least 8 hours—and on average 9¼ hours—a night of uninterrupted sleep to leave their bodies and minds time to be rejuvenated for the next day. If sleep is cut short or disturbed the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair and memory consolidation, neither does the brain have time for its complex clean-up operation (brain cleaning). The effect is that we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully in the learning experience.
The sleep cycle follows a pattern of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement), throughout a typical night the pattern repeats itself every 90 minutes. In the NREM phase one, we begin to transition from being awake to falling asleep. In stage two the onset of sleep begins where we disengage from our surroundings, heart rate and breathing becomes regular and body temperature drops. Stage three is our deep and restorative sleep: muscles are relaxed, tissue growth and repair takes place along with the release of growth hormones and our energy is restored. After about 90 minutes we enter the REM phase, this is when we dream, our brains are active and our eyes dart back and forth and our body is immobile and fully relaxed as our muscles are turned off.
So there’s a lot going on when you tuck yourself in at night, but of course in reality we don’t always get a full and restful night’s sleep and the impact is far reaching. The effect of a poor night’s sleep may stay with you for about 48 hours. Other impacts are more immediate, such as feeling groggy, irritable and the urge to consume sugary drinks, food and extra carbohydrates. Therefore, if your weight is increasing, try spending an extra hour in bed!
As well as the health reasons for getting a good night’s sleep, there are also the physiological and psychological reasons why sleeping well will help you to study and learn.
Physiologically, a sleepy brain has to work harder and isn’t as efficient as a rested brain. This is due to diverting more energy to the prefrontal cortex to stave off tiredness. The effect when we’re learning is that our short and long term memory is shot. This means the brain holds a smaller amount of information for a shorter period of time. The impact is that we go round in circles trying to remember what we’ve learnt, and we find it difficult to perform complex tasks and sometimes even simple tasks, such as reading text. The common example is reading a body of text and not remembering what has been read, or simply reading the same sentence over and over again. This isn’t a great state to be in when you’re studying at a higher level.
A healthy amount of sleep is needed for the plasticity of brain which is a vital component of our ability to adapt to input. If we sleep too little then our ability to process information is lessened, as is the process of remembering what we have learnt and then recalling it in the future, such as in exam settings.
Psychologically, lack of sleep may be the culprit if you’re feeling low in mood, less enthusiastic about activities you used to enjoy and it can chip away at your happiness. In a nutshell, not getting enough good quality sleep heavily influences your outlook on life, energy levels and emotions.
A regular sleep pattern is the foundation needed to enjoy life and engage fully with the learning experience. Without it, it can affect health, wellbeing and the learning process, the ability to perform at your best in exams and presentations, and achieve those high marks you know you’re capable of reaching.
Tips on how to get a good night’s sleep:
- Sleep at regular times – this allows the body to get into a routine.
- Make your bedroom sleep-friendly by keeping it dark, clean and tidy. Your bedroom is for two things; sleep and sex.
- Wind down before going to bed, switch off the TV and electronic devices. The blue screen tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. Install software that enables your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, such as f.lux
- Calm your body and mind (Mindfulness Exercises for Everyday Life).
- Try not to spend the night in the library revising and studying. Nighttime activity disrupts the circadian rhythm. This is your body clock, this responds to environmental cues such light and temperature.
- Avoid caffeine and energy drinks 4–6 hours before heading to bed.
- Read University Health Service SLEEP HYGIENE.
- and Skills for sleep at UoP for more advice.