February 26, 2016

The Art of Sleep

Getting the golden “8 hours of sleep” is often difficult for university students. Sharon Stearns, student learning advisor with the Student Success Centre, shares tips on how to get improve the sleep you get at night and, when you don’t get enough sleep, the best kind of nap for you.

At a certain point during the university term, excitement and best intentions begin to fade under mounting assignments and obligations. Eventually, fatigue becomes the default state, as students begin to sacrifice sleep in order to keep up.

And yet, practicing productive sleep hygiene, or the behaviors and conditions that support effective sleep, is essential for university students. All the learning done during the day can be undermined by not getting appropriate sleep at night. In fact, students’ brains are quite active during sleep doing the following:
  • rehearsing and consolidating material learned that day,
  • preparing the brain to learn on the following day, and
  • clearing out toxic waste accumulated during waking hours.  
Nonetheless, university students are notorious for maintaining erratic and inadequate sleep schedules. While sleep needs can vary by genetic and environmental influences, most experts agree that adults require an average of 8 hours of sleep a day for optimal physical and cognitive functioning. At the absolute minimum, students should strive for six hours to facilitate memory consolidation.

Why is it so hard to get 8 hours of sleep?
Unfortunately, even those determined to get a full 8 hours may struggle to reconcile the nocturnal emphasis of their internal clocks, known as circadian rhythms, with early A.M. class schedules. Physiologically, young adults are programmed to be less sleepy at night and to prefer a later bedtime, which can result in chronic partial sleep deficit for those students with early morning classes. These students should know that they are not necessarily doomed to eternal sleepiness; they probably can shift their circadian rhythm, but only gradually and in small increments. A shift in the timing of the onset of melatonin (the hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle) will likely follow a shift in behavioral habits.

Steps you can take to get in those 8 hours of sleep include:
  • avoid caffeine and other stimulants after 3 p.m.,
  • maintain dim lighting and cool temperatures in your bedroom,
  • turn off all light-emitting screens in the hour or so before sleep,
  • practice a calming bedtime ritual, and
  • above all, maintain a consistent bedtime/wake time routine.
What if 8 hours of sleep is unlikely? Take a nap.
In the meantime though, how should a student cope with daytime sleep pressure resulting from inadequate slumber, short of taping eyelids open or sporting sleep-preventing spectacles? A quick scan of the couches in SUB suggests napping is a common solution. But is it a good one? Are the risks of napping in public (i.e., drooling, sleep talking) worth the potential reward?

Research suggests, yes, they are. In fact, napping has been shown to be better at boosting alertness, mood, and performance than caffeine. This certainly helps explain why high performing students are more likely to nap than lower performing ones. Not all naps are equal, however, so before you snooze, consider these guidelines:
  • A 10- to 20-minute power nap will refresh your mind, increase alertness, and prevent sleep inertia, or that groggy, disoriented feeling that can follow a nap and lead to a loss of productivity.
  • A 60-minute nap probably result in some sleep inertia (or drowsiness) but will also boost your memory.
  • A 90-minute nap is the best choice for students who just don’t get enough sleep at night because it provides a complete sleep cycle. It also benefits emotional memory and creativity.  
Not only the length is important to your nap’s effectiveness, so is the timing. For most people, early afternoon, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., is prime nap time for gaining the benefits without disrupting regular nighttime sleep. But to calculate the best nap time for your schedule, you should check out this Nap Wheel designed by sleep expert Dr. Sara Mednick.   

So as Arianna Huffington says in this TED Talk on how to succeed, “I urge you . . . to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.”