When you’re a student, sleeping is not usually a high priority. There are lectures to attend, assignments to complete, not to mention catching up with your mates over the weekend.
But did you know that going without sleep could be doing you more harm than good — even if you are using those extra hours for study?
Tertiary students are among the most sleep deprived groups in the world. According to a study on sleeping habits in American college students, only 11 per cent had good sleep quality, with 73 per cent suffering from occasional sleep problems. The study also found that more than half the students surveyed reported feeling sleepy during the morning, and that 18 per cent of male and 30 per cent of female students had suffered from insomnia within the past three months.
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Why we need sleep
Scientists are not clear why we need sleep, despite many studies into the subject. However, they have discovered what happens when we don’t get enough. Common problems include:
- Increased negative feelings — Not enough sleep leads to fatigue, irritability, moodiness and even depression, which can have devastating effects.
- Impairs thinking and learning — Lack of sleep causes problems with concentration, memory, reasoning and problem solving, making it more difficult to learn. Sleep also helps ‘consolidate’ what you have learned during the day, meaning too little sleep will make it difficult to retain what you have learned, and will affect your overall learning.
- Weakened immune system — Sleep plays a huge part in keeping your immune system strong. Sleep deprivation can lead to increased illness, meaning that you’re at increased risk of missing classes and needing time off your studies. Other serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease (including heart attack and stroke) and diabetes have also been linked to lack of sleep.
- Weight gain — Sleep loss has been shown to stimulate appetite and increases cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods (aka junk food).
A recent study from Berkeley University of California has also found poor sleep is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
So how much sleep do I need?
There is no ‘magic’ number as to how many hours of sleep are needed. However, experts believe the optimal amount of sleep for adults is seven to eight hours per night. Of course, this varies from person to person, and during times of stress (e.g. exams, and assignments) you may need more. The important thing is that your sleep is of good quality. That means falling asleep easily, not tossing and turning all night, or waking up repeatedly.
Generally, if you feel well rested and alert during the day, then you have probably had enough sleep.
How to improve your sleep
If you suffer from poor sleep quality, or you simply don’t get enough, then try the following tips:
- Keep a schedule — Develop a natural sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) to improve sleep patterns. Get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time each night.
- Stay active — Being active during the day promotes better sleep quality and helps you drop off faster. It also alleviates stress, which may prevent you from sleeping.
- Expose yourself to natural light — Avoid staying indoors, or subjecting yourself to too much artificial light (including computer screens). Light exposure controls the production of a hormone called melatonin, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Relax — Avoid mentally stimulating activities in the hours prior to bedtime. This includes moderate exercise, computer games, action movies, puzzles or even intense studying.
- Set up your room — You need a dark, well ventilated room to sleep in. Ensure your mattress and pillow are comfortable and reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy only. That means no TV, electronic devices or eating!
- Avoid stimulants — Caffeine can be a student’s best friend, but too much can interfere with your sleep. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, and some soft drinks and energy drinks, so watch your intake, particularly before going to sleep. Smoking and other recreational drugs are also stimulants, as are some medications, so be aware and consult your doctor if you feel medication may be interfering with your sleep.
- Eat properly — Don’t go to bed hungry or stuffed. Try to eat foods that will digest easily overnight (as opposed to the whole pizza and 6-pack of beer!) Avoid drinking too many fluids to reduce the chances of getting up for the toilet during the night.
- Avoid napping — Napping during the day will only make it more difficult to sleep at night.
- Reduce stress — Stress can prevent you from sleeping. Meditation, walking or yoga may help, as can drinking a calming herbal tea before bed.
- Avoid sleeping pills —It may be tempting to take sleeping tablets, but they will not fix the cause of your sleeping problems.
While skimping on sleep is something most of us do, it isn’t something we should do regularly. Poor sleep habits and lack of quality sleep can play real havoc with your health, your quality of life, and your studies.
If you continue to experience problems sleeping, consult your doctor.