The Sleep Cycle
When your body sleeps, it goes to work on a variety of maintenance tasks. As a result, the quality of your sleep greatly influences the quality of how you perform when awake. As you sleep, you cycle through five sleep stages. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes. The amount of time spent in each stage varies each time you go through a sleep cycle. In the early part of the night you get more non-REM sleep, in the later part of the night you get more REM sleep. If you want to maximize both your mental and physical performance you need a full night’s sleep, approximately 8-9 hours for most young adults.
Sleep Deprivation The effects of sleep deprivation are very similar to alcohol intoxication in the areas of judgment, coordination and reaction time. If you have a habit of not getting enough sleep it’s likely that you do not even remember what being fully awake feels like. Signs of sleep deprivation include using the snooze button on your alarm repeatedly, having a hard time getting out of bed, feeling sleepy in the afternoon, wanting to sleep in on the weekends and falling asleep in less than five minutes when you go to bed.
Sleep Debt Many of us figure we can make up for lost sleep on the weekends, but two days of good sleep may not be enough. Try to get a minimum of 7.5 hours of sleep each night -- block it off on your calendar if you need to. Find a week when your life isn’t as hectic and have a “sleep vacation” where you get additional time to sleep each night.
The Bottom Line Most of us get less sleep than we need because we are trying to get work done. However, when you have adequate rest you will find that you can get your work done in less time!
Sleep and Academic Performance
Sleep plays a major role in learning and memory. Declarative memory is the memory related to conscious recollection or “knowing.” For example, being able to recall information for an exam is linked with both REM and non-REM sleep. Sleep deprivation and/or fragmentation impairs both learning and remembering abilities.
The Research (1) Student with more regular sleep-wake patterns (going to bed and waking up about the same time each day) report higher GPAs. (2) Another study found that students that displayed lower academic performance reported later bedtimes and wake-up times on both weekday and weekends. (3) A survey of high-school students found self-reported attention problems were correlated with irregular bedtimes.
Tips (1) Try to go to bed about the same time as many nights as possible. While the hectic life of being a college student might not allow you to go to bed at the same time seven nights a week, set a goal of getting to bed at about the same time on week nights. (2) Shift your bedtime to one that is earlier. Do this in small steps. Consider moving up your bedtime by 15 minutes a week. For example, if you usually go to bed around 1am, try for a week to go to bed at 12:45am. Once that becomes a habit, move it up another 15 minutes.
Summary Getting more sleep not only increases concentration, but it also helps your brain move information into long term memory storage with better recall. As a result you will find you have increased concentration, can get your work done more efficiently and require less studying time before exams.
Sleep and Stress
Adequate sleep is crucial for proper brain function. However, when you’re stressed, it’s likely that you are getting less sleep. Getting less sleep results in more stress, which is a rather vicious cycle. Additionally our fast-paced lifestyle often makes it difficult for us to slow down the instant we turn the light off. One of the functions of REM sleep is to replenish your body’s supply of neurotransmitters, which include the dopamine and serotonin that are your body’s natural mood boosters.
The Research (1) Higher levels of cortisol, a neurotransmitter associated with stress, are associated with a higher degree of experienced sleep disturbance. (2) One study found that people who focus more on anxiety and emotions when under stress report getting less sleep, while those who ignore emotions and focus on tasks when under stress get more sleep.
Tips (1) Increase the number of relaxation techniques you know and practice them before bed for a fantastic way to wind down, calm your mind, and prepare for sleep. (2) Deep Breathing: Find a comfortable position and focus on your breath. Take deep, slow, steady breaths. (3) Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Starting with your toes, tense up the muscles, then take a slow breath and relax the muscles on the exhale. (4) Visualization: Think of a place, real or imaginary, that is calm and peaceful to you. Try to engage all of your senses-what do you see, hear, small, feel in this place?
Summary Stress is one of the most common sleep disrupters. Learning ways to mitigate stress can help you overcome the racing mind that is keeping you awake. Give yourself permission to get a little extra sleep or take a power nap during times when you know your stress levels are higher.
Sleep and Alcohol
Alcohol affects the way your body sleeps by interrupting the natural progression of REM sleep. As a result, alcohol reduces the restorative effects of sleep. This is why one hardly ever wakes up feeling restored and rested the morning after they have been out drinking.
The Research (1) While later class schedules increase the opportunity to get more sleep, it also increases the number of hours student can stay out drinking. As a result, in a recent study, students who reported later class times also reported higher alcohol consumption and a lower overall GPA. Researchers believe that the sleep disruption caused by alcohol reduces the benefits of getting more sleep. (2) One research study showed that as little as one drink an hour before bed interrupted sleep in the study’s participants. Long-term alcohol use has been found to disrupt sleep even after a person has abstained from alcohol for periods of up to two years. (3) Drinking is also more likely to lead to snoring, which can restrict airflow into the lungs, reducing oxygen in your blood and contributing to a hangover.
Tips (1) Reduce the amount of alcohol you consume. (2) Go to bed sober, avoid consuming alcohol in the hours before going to bed. Your body needs approximately one hour to process the alcohol for every standard drink you have consumed (one bottle of beer, one shot of liquor, one fifth of a can of Four Lokos). (3) Quit smoking. Many people only smoke when they drink and get the additional sleep-disruptive effects of nicotine as well.
Summary Alcohol may not affect quantity of sleep, but it does have a detrimental effect on quality of sleep. If you regularly try to make up for lost sleep during the week on the weekends you may be not be reaping the benefits of those extra hours at all.
Sleep and Peformance
Sleep plays a major role in procedural memory, the memory of how to perform a skill or solve a problem. For example, playing a scale on a musical instrument or perfecting a foul shot. Procedural memory is linked with REM sleep.
The Research (1) Research indicates that a good night’s sleep after working on a particular skill improved performance without further practice and this improvement was directly related to the amount of REM sleep. (2) A study of college athletes found that basketball players that got at least 10 hours of sleep at night ran faster and made more shots. A similar study with swimmers found that the extra sleep allowed them to swim faster, were quicker off the blocks and improved turn time.
Tips REM sleep happens at very predictable times for most people, in several small pieces during the first six hours of sleep and then a two hour period in the last hours of an 8-hour sleep cycle. People who sleep less than 6 hours only get the shorter REM cycles which total less than an hour.
Summary If you want to improve performance, you must increase sleep to at least eight hours. Professional athletes like the NY Jets and the Orlando Magic basketball players make sleep hygiene a priority when in training.
Sleep disorders are conditions that prevent you from getting restful sleep. You then experience daytime sleepiness and a decrease in performance in your daily tasks. There are a variety of recognized sleep issues but most are related to not being able to sleep or not getting solid or adequate sleep (insomnia) or sleeping excessively and/or experiencing the desire to nap frequently through the day (hypersomnia).
The Research (1) According to the National Center for Sleep Disorders Research, about 30-40% of all adults report having some symptoms of insomnia within the last year. (2) A recent survey of SUNY Oneonta students found that more than 90% of students experienced sleepiness during daytime activities. (3) It is quite common (67%) for women to experience poor sleep for two or three days during their menstrual cycle each month. (4) Insomniacs tend to feel more lonely, be less optimistic, experience higher levels of stress and expressive symptoms compared to non-insomniacs.
Tips (1) A nap is the best solution to making up for lost nighttime sleep rather than sleeping in late. Sleeping in late can disturb your sleep wake cycle which may make your insomnia worse. (2) Choose quiet activities before bedtime and avoid the use of electronic screens which emit light that stimulates your brain into thinking it’s daytime. (3) When you are having trouble falling asleep try to avoid stressing about the fact that you are still awake, utilize simple meditation techniques like visualizing your favorite vacation spot or counting while you breathe deeply.
Summary Sleep disorders might be described as acute (short term) or chronic (long term). If you are experiencing disordered sleeping for more than three weeks it would smart to discuss these issues with your primary care doctor who can refer you to a sleep clinic. If you experience sleep issues on a short term basis review the tips on “sleep hygiene,” and consider what factors in your life may be affecting your sleep (like stress).
Sleep and Caffeine
While caffeine is the most commonly consumed stimulant to offset the effects of sleepiness, there are a number of other similarly acting ingredients found in a growing market of energy boosting products. Stimulants work by interacting with your neurons, as stimulant levels increase you experience the drug’s positive effect and when the level drops your body experiences a crash. A variety of foods can affect your body’s alertness or sleepiness and therefore influence whether or not you get a good night’s sleep.
The Research (1) A NASA sponsored study found that short naps improved pilot alertness and performance during long flights. (2) In one research study where the experimental group consumed caffeine, the participants, on average got 2 hours less sleep, took longer to fall asleep and experienced more nighttime awakenings than the control group. (3) In another study measuring the effects of caffeine and sleep it was found that participants began to develop a tolerance to caffeine within four days.
Tips (1) Caffeine can cause sleep problems up to twelve hours after consumption. Consider cutting back caffeine intake or not consuming after lunch. (2) Go for a brisk walk, doing something physical can increase alertness. (3) Try an alternative snack like a fruit smoothie or a fresh apple. The natural sugars will give you a moderate energy boost and you will get some nutritional benefits.
Summary Be aware of the effect of stimulants on your body to make the best choices regarding the quantity and frequency of consumption. Try other ways of increasing your alertness in the late afternoon and early evening so that you don’t sacrifice the quality of your sleep.
Consequences of Poor Sleep
Having to get up after a poor night’s sleep is never pleasant. Most of us have experienced the mental fog and grumpiness that accompany those days, but did you know that a lack of sleep is known to increase your chance of getting in an accident, reduce your sex drive, increase the symptoms of depression, contribute to skin wrinkles, stimulate cravings for fatty/high carb foods, and impair judgment?
The Research (1) One night of deprived sleep impairs driving to a similar degree as a legally intoxicating blood alcohol level. (2) Individuals who report experiencing insomnia were more likely to develop depression, anxiety disorders and other psychiatric disorders. (3) Sleepiness has been found to decrease the ability of college students to perform basic academic activities such as solving mathematical problems.
Tips Our lives of daytime indoor work and nighttime exposure to electronic light work in opposition to our natural sleep wake cycle. (1) Increase your exposure to natural light by taking outside breaks, doing your schoolwork near a window and wearing your sunglasses less. (2) Increase your melatonin levels at night by choosing a pre-bedtime activity that does not include an electronic screen. (3) Put a low-watt bulb in one lamp in your room to use at night and make sure the room is dark when you sleep.
Summary Don’t mistake your body’s adaptation to less sleep to mean that you really can survive. At some point the loss of judgment that comes with sleep deprivation affects how well you can judge how much sleep you need.