Shellee W., a student at Las Positas College in Livermore, California, knows the power of a good night’s rest. The 46-year-old is taking courses, working at the school’s health and wellness center, and raising two boys as a single parent.
“Sleep is a hard thing to get,” she says. “But if I don’t get enough, I can’t think properly and I’m sluggish. If I burn the candle at both ends, work winds up snowballing. I try to study earlier in the day because later I get too tired and I want to go sleep. Also, I feel like lack of sleep really ages you. I can see it in my face when I don’t get enough sleep. I have bags under my eyes. I don’t look rested. It’s part of health and well-being.”
Sleep Does the Body Good
Getting plenty of rest, which for adults generally means 8-9 hours a night, helps your body stay healthy, inside and out. First, Shellee is right: you need your beauty rest, literally. More than 57 percent of students in a recent Student Health 101 survey said that they don’t look their best when sleep-deprived, and the science agrees.
According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), many of the body’s cells increase their production of proteins while you sleep. Because proteins are largely responsible for cellular growth and damage repair, your body literally fixes itself from the inside out while you’re zonked out. This is true of so much more than how you look. Your body requires down time in order to build immunity and fight off illness. If you find yourself catching every cold that goes around, you may be short on zzzzz’s. And being sick isn’t good for your studies.
Sleep affects your inner beauty, too. Your emotional outlook is more negative when you are sleep-deprived. David Dinges, chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, found that subjects even partially deprived of sleep reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. Sleep will help you feel less stressed, communicate more effectively, and better handle pressure.
F Is for Fatigued
Ever stay up all night cramming for an exam, only to get to the test and draw a complete blank? There’s a reason for that, and it’s tied to your lack of slumber.
Sleep does more than just let your brain go on vacation. While you’re dreaming, many processes take place, such as the conversion of memory from short-term to long-term. The brain also takes this time to organize the information you’ve acquired.
These are slow processes that aren’t complete until about 6–8 hours after you’ve fallen asleep, so if you get only a few hours of sleep at a time, you won’t reap the benefits.
Tasks like reasoning, analysis, problem solving, and verbal skills also do a nose dive when you stay up, and you have your frontal lobes to thank for that. These brain structures are largely responsible for verbal fluency, creativity, and executive function, and take the biggest hit when you don’t get enough sleep.
“Many of our commuter students are multitaskers,” says Dayna Cerrut-Barbero, director of student health and wellness services at Las Positas College. “They’re trying to work, have a social life, and study. Research shows that all-nighters don’t work and you’re not going to perform well and retain information.”
Almost 80 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents report difficulty concentrating when they’ve gotten too little or poor sleep.
And that’s not all: nearly 40 percent have actually fallen asleep in class, and about 50 percent fall asleep while studying.
Find the Snooze Button
Many students make major mistakes when it comes to managing their sleep. Here are some common misconceptions:
I can catch up on zzzzz’s over the weekend.
Almost 30 percent of the Student Health 101 survey respondents try to make up for lost sleep when they have time. But while it may feel great to sleep in, it actually throws off your circadian rhythms, making it harder to sleep at bedtime. If you’ll be up really late one weekend night, try getting up the next day just an hour or two past your normal wake-up time. This will make it easier for your body to adjust to your weekday rhythm.
My bed is for sleeping, eating, studying, and Web surfing, too.
Studying in bed is very common, but a no-no. First, feeling the temptation of that soft pillow while you’re elbow-deep in Economic Theory is an invitation for dozing off. Since you can’t absorb knowledge by sleeping on your books, it’s better to keep your studying out of the bedroom.
Further, if you use your bed for all sorts of activities, your brain won’t associate it with rest. So, when you finally do try to get some sleep, you’ll be busy thinking about homework, snacks, catching up with friends, and whatever else is on your mind. Make sure your bed is only for sleeping and relaxing (and sex).
Those are the don’ts. Now, here are some do’s.
Be consistent. As much as possible, wake up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends.
Adjust your schedule. If you’re unfit for the public early in the morning, 8 a.m. classes aren’t for you. Enroll in those that meet later, if possible.
Cut down on caffeine. Coffee, black tea, energy drinks, caffeine pills, etc. all have caffeine —a stimulant. If you’re having trouble falling, or staying, asleep (or experience withdrawal if you don’t have any caffeine), consider cutting back.
Need a nap? Make it short. A brief nap of 20 to 30 minutes can revive you. After a so-called “power nap,” you’ll wake up refreshed and energized, and experience more productivity and better learning later in the day. Overdoing it, however, leaves you with a sleep hangover and messes with your circadian rhythms, making it hard to fall asleep at night.
To get enough good quality sleep, follow these guidelines
- Develop a bedtime ritual.
Get into the habit of doing the same things just prior to turning in night after night, like brushing your teeth, changing into something different, and listening to some relaxing music. Your body will associate this routine with sleep. Start about thirty minutes before you go to bed, or longer if it takes you a while to unwind.
- Avoid alcohol.
Drinking may help you fall asleep more quickly, but it robs you of rapid eye movement (R.E.M.) sleep, which is when your brain and body make repairs and condense memory. Plus, since alcohol is a diuretic, you’ll likely find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to urinate, interrupting the sleep you are getting.
- Keep cool.
No need for Antarctic cold, but keeping the temperature at around 65°F (or 18°C) has been shown to help people fall and stay asleep.
- Plan your day.
Knowing what you have to do and when assignments are due will help you avoid all-nighter crunches and keep your stress levels down. Focus on a realistic schedule; it does no good to keep a plan if it’s not one you’ll stick with.
- Relax, not just at bedtime.
Take up an activity you enjoy and can look forward to, and remember to take breaks in your day. To calm yourself before bed, try listening to relaxing music, practicing meditation techniques (like deep breathing and visualization), or writing out what you need to remember. That way your brain won’t be in overdrive as you try to fall asleep.
- Douse the noise and light.
Most college residence halls and shared apartments are noisy. Plus, your roommate may keep a different schedule. To drown out disruptive sounds, use a white noise machine, small fan on your nightstand, or earplugs. Wear an eye mask if you’re sensitive to light, or invest in some light-blocking curtains.
- If you’re still awake, take a break.
Lying in bed thinking about how much sleep you’re not getting will only make you feel worse. If you can’t fall asleep or have woken up, get up and do something relaxing for about 20 minutes. This shifts your mindset away from trying to force your body to fall asleep. When you return to bed, you’ll feel less stressed, hopefully allowing you to slip into slumber.
- Try snuggling…
up with a book you’re reading for pleasure or doing some slow stretching. Avoid using electronics; they interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep.
- Wake up when it’s right.
It’s easier to rise when you’ve completed a full sleep cycle and are in a phase of light sleep. There are many smartphone apps and Web sites that help you calculate when it’s best for you to get up, based on when you go to sleep.
Exercise and Sleep
Exercise raises your body temperature and elevates hormones, including endorphins and epinephrine, which make you feel energized. It takes time for these to leave your system and for your body to cool down. Sleep is easiest when your core temperature drops to about 65°F (or 18°C). By all means, exercise, but not within three hours of hitting the sack. Running laps around the track in your pajamas? Probably not a good idea.
- Resist the urge to skip sleep. It significantly affects learning and memory.
- Keep your sleep and wake times as consistent as possible.
- Use your bed only for sleeping and relaxing (and sex).
- Create a relaxing routine that will put your brain in the mood for sleep.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and exercise right before bed. These can negatively affect sleep.
- If you have insomnia, do something relaxing for 20 minutes. This will take your mind off trying to force yourself to fall asleep.
Get help or find out more
Harvard Medical School, Division of Sleep Medicine, Sleep, Learning, and Memory
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep
Stanford University, How To Sleep Well