Sleep — Your Secret Sauce
Sleep is one of the most overlooked areas of wellness, especially on college campuses. I would argue that sleep is your secret sauce that can help you thrive. I know there is a certain “cool” factor to bragging about how little sleep you are getting. Course work is in high gear. You are motivated to do well in your classes… it’s easy to think that if you can just spend a little less time sleeping and more time studying, you’ll get ahead of the game! We have all had those times when it felt like we had to sacrifice sleep to get a project or paper done or to meet a deadline. The problem is, when we regularly sacrifice getting a good night’s sleep, our bodies and brains suffer.
PROBLEM #1: “Sleep is the enemy of productivity.”
There is a common attitude, especially in the United States, that sleep is a waste of time. In a society that values productivity–and equates being productive with self-worth—sleep begins to seem like our enemy! Sleep equals lost productivity, which makes us worry if we’ll measure up… so, we buy extra Red Bull (or Monster, or Celsius, or… you get the idea) and push ourselves to work longer.
The truth is that sleeping is hard-wired into our brains for a reason, and depriving ourselves of sleep can have serious short term and long term consequences.
PROBLEM #2: “I can function on 5 hours of sleep…”
When I talk with college students about self-care, I often ask this question:
Do you know how military interrogators break people down when they want to get information? No, the answer is not violence. The answer is……. SLEEP DEPRIVATION! Depriving people of sleep weakens them in all sorts of ways, but most critically: mentally. Our brains and bodies NEED SLEEP. How much sleep do interrogators allow? Often 3-4 hours of sleep… enough so they aren’t psychotic (therefore unreliable), but they are weakened.
No problem! You say! I sleep… I sleep 5-6 hours a night! Well, sleeping 5-6 hours a night is better than sleeping 3-4 hours a night—or not sleeping at all! But is it enough? Research suggests that young adults and working adults thrive with and benefit from 7-9 hours of sleep a night. (Adolescents and teens typically do better with 9-10 hours and elder adults require more like 6-7 hours of sleep.)
PROBLEM #3: “I may not sleep enough during the week, but I catch up over the weekend!”
Sleep deprivation is not unlike exercise and eating. You get the best benefit from it when you do it regularly and in reasonable quantities. The analogy holds: starving or binging with food are both unhealthy, and you can’t really “catch up” from malnutrition with one or two really big meals. Likewise, going for a 10-mile run can have a bad effect on your body if you haven’t been exercising and building up to a long run. Having a long sleep when you’re tired can be great, don’t get me wrong. But sleeping in one morning a week may not really help your brain catch up in the ways that regularly getting a good night’s sleep would.
WHY IS SLEEP IMPORTANT?
Believe it or not, researchers still don’t understand everything there is to know about what happens to us when we sleep (especially the role of our dreams!). They have figured out some pretty important things about sleep. First, sleep allows our brain to “take out the trash”. Sleeping allows cells to flush toxins and clear waste from the brain. In fact, cells all over our bodies regenerate during sleep. Like the “recovery period” for athletes, sleep allows our muscles, brains, cells, and organs to flush out the day and get refreshed.
Sleep also plays a key role in consolidating our memory. For students, this is a really important thing to understand. Your brain is like your super-computer. Not only does it regulate your body functions (like breathing, hormones, heart, muscles, etc.), it sorts, catalogs and stores information and experiences. Then, it allows you to retrieve information and experiences so you can generate thoughts, questions and connections. That kind of critical thinking is the primary skill set you came to college to learn and develop! Sleep is the “secret sauce” that allows for the transition of input and output to occur.
During sleep our brains do the sorting and “pinning” to memory groups that allow us to draw on that information and those experiences at a later time. Memory—a key aspect of your success as a student—relies on sleep! So does creativity, as a matter of fact. The more fatigued your brain becomes, the more it reverts to known and easy neural pathways. Forging new pathways (and creating new memories) is harder and requires a refreshed brain.
For people who can sleep (insomnia will get it’s own blog at a later date), but often find themselves sleeping less in order to study (or party? Or Netflix binge?)… Here are some basic tips for good sleep habits (also known as “good sleep hygiene”):
Pro Tip #1: Separate Your Sleep Space from Your Work Space
As tempting (and convenient) as it can be to study in your bedroom, this can actually make it harder to sleep. In addition to taking cues from light (which help your brain match your circadian rhythms to daytime and nighttime functioning), your brain also takes cues from your activity. If you study a lot on your bed, your brain associates your bed with the idea of being awake and alert in order to work. If you HAVE to study in your bedroom, try to study at a desk or on a couch. Ideally, go somewhere else (Historical Society has a really fabulous Hogwarts style library to study in… or your favorite coffee shop… or the study lounge at Pres House church5). The point is, try not to confuse your brain by sending mixed signals about where you sleep and where you work.
Pro Tip #2: Get Some Exercise During the Day (but not right before bed)
Though exercise and sleep seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, they are actually connected. Moving our bodies is also a way of letting the stress of the day and the energy from the day get processed through our bodies. If we are holding a lot of tension, stress, or even excitement, it can be difficult to wind down to sleep. Moving our bodies (walking, dancing, range of motion exercises, martial arts, Zumba… you decide) helps do some of the “heavy lifting” of processing the day that the brain can then finish up while you sleep. However, exercising right before you plan to go to sleep may mean you take longer to wind down!
Pro Tip #3: Develop Good Sleep Routines
The hours before our brain starts to signal “it’s time to go to sleep” there are several things we can do to help our brains wind down:
- Avoid caffeine: kind of obvious… even if you think it doesn’t affect you–try experimenting and see if it helps you feel more rested or sleep a bit longer…
- Avoid alcohol a few hours before you sleep: as you metabolize alcohol after the slow down/sleepy effect you get a “bounce back” that interrupts your sleep cycle a few hours later.
- Turn off your screens: Set an alarm or reminder on your phone to power down your screens (computers, phones, kindles, tablets, etc.). Our brains receive a LOT of information from screens, including the electromagnetic kinds that can keep us revved up and make it harder for the right chemicals to get released for sleep.
- Read a book; listen to music; take a shower or bath; stretch; breathe.
HERE’S THE UPSHOT:
As a student, sleep is your friend. Sleep helps your brain process and retain what you are learning and then pull it up again when you need it. Cramming for tests by staying up late is actually counterproductive to test performance (fact). Students who review notes/pertinent information and then get a good night’s sleep outperform students who stay up late cramming for tests and reduce their sleep.
Give yourself permission to sleep. Prioritize your sleep. Don’t buy into the “sleep is the enemy” mindset. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep is your secret sauce that will help you turn something ordinary into something spectacular. Your body, your mood and your brain will thank you.
Written by Ginger Morgan, PhD
Director of Candid–Health and Life Coach