Have you ever wondered why you are told to ‘sleep on it’ when you can’t make up your mind on something or solve a difficult problem? Well, science has now proven that the creativity of our brains and our cognitive ability comes from the quality of our sleep.
In fact, the science of sleep has now advanced to a point where we now know the benefits of a great nights’ sleep. This includes helping our bodies recover and repair after exercise etc, maintain the health of our immune system, help our brains detoxify and so much more. Sleep science has also come up with the deficits of both short, and long-term sleep deprivation.
Rather than going through the whole list of long-term health risks (to persuade you to sleep more) let’s focus on the bits which are relevant to student life and in particular, studying and memory.
First of all, we all know what it feels like to wake up unable to study after a bad nights’ sleep. Here, our brain fog makes it impossible to focus. By the time it gets to the evening we can’t remember half of what we have read or been taught. This is because a good nights’ sleep is needed to prepare the brain for its cognitive processes including our ability to concentrate and learn.
What’s more, it’s now proven that if you don’t sleep properly after a day of studying, you remember less of what you have learnt. In fact, research from Matthew Walker the author of ‘Why we Sleep’ has shown that a bad nights’ sleep can rob you of up to 40% of what you have learnt. This is because sleep is needed for memory consolidation. Memory consolidation involves taking short-term daily input into long-term memory. Then, as we sleep on, the brain goes through all the recent memories and decides which to keep and which to ditch. This process then strengthens some memories (through repetition). Thus, sleep is vital in strengthening our knowledge base of the subject studied or task done that day.
Here’s some sleep tips which should have you get a great nights’ sleep.
Be as consistent as you can.
Whilst it’s very hard to make the most of student life and have a consistent bed and wake time this is what your circadian rhythm (or body clock) expects. In fact, we are biologically designed to go to sleep and wake up at the same time, getting between 7-9 hours of sleep, 7 days a week. If you can’t do this, try to set your alarm to wake you up at the same time 7 days a week. This can help you anchor your body clock, which in turn helps give you the best chance of getting to sleep easily. Try to avoid the temptation to catch up on lost sleep at the weekends. When you vary your sleep times this creates ‘social jet lag’ which knocks all your body clock out cinque. Instead, it’s better to catch up with a nap. Better still, if you are planning a late night, try to nap ahead and put sleep in the bank. This means you won’t be trying to catch up on sleep the day after. The best (natural) sleep time is the siesta time just after lunch.
Are you a Night Owl or Morning Lark?
Whilst our natural sleep window is between 10 pm and 12 pm, some of us like to go to bed and wake earlier (Morning Larks). Whereas some of us naturally like to go to bed later (Night Owls). These are our inherited sleep traits called Chronotypes. It’s always easier to get to sleep if you can sleep in line with your natural sleep propensity.
Doing exercise is proven to increase the quality of sleep by increasing deep sleep. If you don’t like cardio, walking for 20-30 minutes a day will also improve sleep. You should stop cardio about 3 hours before bed. If you work out too late, this can increase your core body temperature and your cortisol levels, both of which can keep you awake.
Stop caffeine at lunchtime and alcohol ideally three hours before bed.
It’s quite easy to get into a routine of using caffeine to get us going in the morning and alcohol to switch our minds off at night after study. All caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, sodas) can interfere with your sleep as it keeps you alert and adrenalised. It takes your body 6 hours to remove half of it from your body, so you need quite a gap before sleep time. Also, aim to stop drinking alcohol about 3 hours before bed. Alcohol is a sedative (not a sleep aid) and will disrupt your sleep during the second half of the night.
Eat for sleep.
The best diet for all health and especially sleep is a ‘Mediterranean’ diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, a little red meat and some fermented food for your gut biome. A diet of processed, fast carbohydrates and sugary food however will have the opposite effect and can keep you awake. The loss of sleep disrupts the hormones that tell us whether we are full or hungry and switches us into eating-more-mode. In addition, we get ‘the munchies’ with a craving to eat more carb-dense, fatty and sweet food. This then sets the cycle off again as making you lose more and more sleep as you eat more and more carbs and so on. It’s not surprising therefore that weight gain due to lost sleep is well documented.
Evening wind-down routine with a tech curfew.
As it gets closer to bedtime, dim all your lights to help with the production of Melatonin, your sleep hormone. Create a regular sleep routine such as bath, book, meditation and bed as this sets up your brain that sleep is coming. A tech curfew is also a good thing to consider. Technology such as mobile phones and computers emit blue light (as do TVs). This is the same type of light that the sun has which is designed to wake us up and block the production of Melatonin. Always put filters on your tech to help. Some people buy blue light glasses to stop the light too. In addition, the stimulation of being on social media and apps will keep your brain hyper-alert. Always keep your phone away from your bed at night, even if you are using it as an alarm. This way you avoid the temptation of using it in bed.
Learn a technique to help you switch off.
If you’re having trouble switching your mind off at night, try yoga, meditation or breathing techniques. Yoga and meditation create brain waves similar to the delta waves of deep sleep and are great at getting you out of your mind and into your body. This relaxes you before bedtime. Another way to relax is to slow your breathing down. Try to breathe out for a couple of seconds longer than breathing in. This reduces the activity from your ‘fight or flight’ or sympathetic nervous system. Techniques such a the 4-7-8 technique and the Military Technique are proven to help you get to sleep. There are lots of apps such as Calm that use these techniques too.
Get out of bed if you can’t sleep.
Always avoid lying awake in bed building up anxiety. Allow yourself about 20 minutes only to nod off. Then, if you can’t get to sleep, get out of bed, have a warm drink, or read a book under dim lighting and then come back to bed when you are feeling tired. This means your brain associates your bed with getting to sleep, rather than lying awake.
Learn to breathe through your nose.
This increases the oxygenation of your blood and is proven to help you sleep better. If needs be, consider taping up your mouth with tape (there are lots of dedicated tapes for this on Amazon). Breathing through your nose will encourage more sleep-friendly and relaxing patterns.
See your GP
See your GP or talk to a member of your University Staff if you are struggling to sleep. Sleep is vital for your long-term health and your GP can check your systems and suggest the best ways you can address the problem.