We are pretty sure there is a national sleep crisis. Too many students aren’t getting enough of it and are sleepwalking their way through their studies. One of the causes for this is that there are so many false beliefs regarding sleep which get recited so often that it becomes difficult to separate the myths from the facts. This is what we’re investigating in this blog, separating the fact from the fiction and revealing common sleep myths and important sleep facts.
Myth – Students only need 8 hours of sleep a night
Research has demonstrated that the amount of sleep needed varies with age, with teenagers needing more than adults. It has been shown that overall 45% of adolescents get insufficient sleep on a school night, with this figure rising to 62% amongst the oldest students at school (sixth form). But what is the optimum amount of sleep? Many students incorrectly think it is 8. However, this is more accurate once you are an adult. The optimum amount of sleep for a teenager is thought to be 8-10 hours. Therefore, it is recommended that students have a regular bedtime throughout the week that ensures they get the recommended 8-10 hours.
Fact – Sleep improves memory
Recent research showed people who are sleep deprived find it harder to remember things compared to those who had got a good night’s sleep. One explanation for this is that sleep allows the brain to prioritise the information we need to remember. Therefore, a good night’s sleep could facilitate improvements in both revision and in exam performance.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but if students are unable to get to sleep within 20-30 minutes, they should get up and complete another task such as a jigsaw, as the longer you lay in bed the less you come to associate bed with sleep.
Research has also demonstrated that counting sheep may not be the best strategy to help you sleep. In one study, those who imagined a relaxing beach took on average 20 mins less to get to sleep than those who counted sheep, as that is too boring and hence other distracting thoughts enter the brain.
Fact – Not enough sleep affects your emotions
One fascinating study looked at the relationship between being very tired and your ability to manage your emotions. The researchers found that tired participants remembered less positive things and a similar amount of negative information. This partly explains why students tend to be more stressed, anxious and frustrated when they are tired, as the negative moments carry more weight in their mind.
Myth - Watching TV or using your phone helps students relax before bed
Students often spend the last hour of their evening watching TV or using their phone as they believe this helps them relax, thus facilitating a better night’s sleep. However, this is not the case. Many electronics (especially mobile phones and tablets) emit a bright light, which reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. This not only leads to a reduction of sleep duration, but also sleep quality.
Fact – Sleep improves concentration
A lack of sleep can slow down the functioning of certain brain areas resulting in lower levels of student concentration. This could in turn hinder academic performance. For more tips on concentration, our blog “How to Improve Concentration” may help.
Myth - You can catch up with sleep at the weekend
Sleeping for longer at the weekend can ruin your sleep cycle, potentially making it harder to sleep on Sunday evenings and to wake up Monday mornings. Recent research has shown that many believe that one long night of sleep restores performance; but the positive effects of this may last as little as 6 hours.
Fact – Good sleep improves decision making
Sleep deprivation has a big impact on the area of the brain responsible for decision making. Research has shown that sleep deprived participants are more likely to make poor decisions and choose risky options. This is thought to occur because a lack of sleep does not allow the area of the brain responsible for decision making to recover and replenish.
Myth - Naps are bad
Naps are often portrayed in a negative light. However, if they are not too long that they affect the night’s sleep (say around 30 minutes), they can really help. For example, research has shown that naps can improve procedural memory (memory of how to carry out tasks) as well as being re-energising.
Fact - Exercise can help you sleep that night
Past research suggested that the effects of exercise on sleep were only positive when it occurred 4-8 hours before bedtime. However, more recently this has been updated and exercise up to 2 hours before bed has been found to help improve sleep quality.
It is clear to see that ensuring students get the right amount of sleep has many positive benefits. These range from improvements in memory, concentration and decision making. Therefore, it is hoped that by knowing which sleep statements are myths and which are facts, students can catch up on some much needed zzzz’s and reap the rewards.