Student Survival Guide: Bedtime matters

You're free of parental rules. But still — go to sleep
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 25, 2013

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Poor memory. Inability to concentrate. Weight gain. High blood pressure. Dark circles and pallid skin. Mood swings. Relationship troubles. Learning disabilities.

Want to know one way to avoid, or at least diminish, these undesirable outcomes? You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: Get. More. Sleep. Or at least try to get the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended seven to nine hours per night.

We know, we know, it’s nigh impossible to get that much shut-eye, what with all the studying and partying and working and Netflixing that needs to get done in a 24-hour period. But the risks of sleep deprivation are serious and real, especially for hard-working (and hard-living) students.

According to Martine Eon, a polysomnographic technologist at Maine Medical Center’s Sleep Institute, the link between lack of sleep and high-cost medical and cognitive issues is becoming increasingly apparent. The eight beds at the Sleep Institute, where technicians monitor patients’ sleep using a variety of instruments (including 32 wire attachments that gauge everything from heart rate to eye movements), are almost always full, Eon says.

“Deep sleep restores the body,” she says, noting that the five stages of sleep help us heal both physically and mentally from the demands of the day. During Stages 3 and 4 (known as “slow-wave” or “delta” sleep), for example, tissues grow and repair themselves, blood pressure drops, and energy is restored. During Stage 5 (Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep), our memories solidify and our brains recharge.

Sleep disorders that disrupt this cycle, such as sleep apnea or even just build-up of a “sleep debt,” can impair metabolism, lead to daytime sleepiness (and therefore decreased motivation to exercise), and alter hormone levels — all of which lead to weight gain and in some cases obesity or diabetes.

Researchers have also found that sleep deprivation leads to slower thinking and sluggish reaction times — which bodes poorly for a pop-quiz-taker.

For better sleep, we need better sleep hygiene, Eon says. Our bedrooms should be cool, dark, and clean, with no blinking and buzzing electronics (put your cell phone on silent before you turn off the light). No more falling asleep to the TV — even with our eyes closed, “the flickers of light are enough to stimulate your brain,” she says. Exercising less than three hours before bedtime isn’t ideal, due to the resulting spike in body temperature. And we’re sorry to report that alcohol, which may make you sleepy at first, “becomes a stimulant when you go to sleep.”

What about napping, the secret of busy people everywhere?

“If you’re getting quality sleep and sleeping as much as you should, you shouldn’t need to nap,” Eon says, though she admits that a 20- to 30-minute catnap shouldn’t hurt anyone. “Longer than that and you risk going into deep sleep,” which in turn will make you more disoriented upon waking.

And people should try to maintain the same sleep and wake times every day — no more snoozing until noon on Saturdays.

Along those lines, smart students should rethink the all-nighter. Studies out of the University of California Los Angeles and the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center in Houston show that quality rest is actually more important than late-night studying.

“Any prolonged sleep deprivation will affect your mood, energy level, and ability to focus, concentrate and learn, which directly affects your academic performance,” Philip Alapat, medical director of the Harris Center, explained in a release. “Memory recall and ability to maintain concentration are much improved when an individual is rested.”

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