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Like many students, you probably think your focus is superb no matter how frazzled your brain feels, and you can get by on four hours of shut-eye just fine, thank you very much. Besides, you need to stay awake long enough to study for a test, meet up with friends, and write an essay—all tonight. Sure, you hear your bed sheets calling you, your pillow singing a sweet lullaby. “Well,” you say, “they can beckon and bellow all they want. I’ve got things to do!”
Sleep does the body good
Getting plenty of rest, which for teens means eight to nine hours a night, helps your body stay healthy, inside and out. First, you need your beauty rest, literally. More than 57 percent of students in a recent Student Health 101 survey said they don’t look their best when sleep-deprived, and the science agrees.
According to the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), many of the body’s cells increase their production of proteins while you sleep. Because proteins are largely responsible for cellular growth and damage repair, your body fixes itself from the inside out while you’re zonked out. This is true of so much more than how you look. Your body requires downtime in order to build immunity and fight off illness. If you find yourself catching every cold that goes around, you may be short on zzzzz’s. And being sick isn’t good for your studies.
Sleep affects your inner beauty, too. Your emotional outlook is more negative when you’re sleep-deprived. Do you turn into the Incredible Hulk when you’re tired? So do more than 70 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents. David Dinges, chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, found that people even partially deprived of sleep reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed a normal sleep schedule, their mood improved dramatically. Sleep will help you feel less stressed, communicate more effectively, and better handle pressure.
F is for fatigued
Ever stay up all night cramming for a test, only to get to the test and draw a blank? There’s a reason for that, and it’s tied to your lack of slumber.
Sleep does more than just let your brain go on vacation. While you’re dreaming, your brain organizes information and converts memory from short-term to long-term. These are slow processes that aren’t complete until about six to eight hours after you’ve fallen asleep, so if you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t reap the benefits.
Tasks like reasoning, analysis, problem solving, and verbal skills also do a nose dive when you stay up, and you have your frontal lobes to thank for that. These brain structures are largely responsible for speech, creativity, and executive function (reasoning, planning, decision making), and take the biggest hit when you don’t get enough sleep. So if your exam has essay questions or requires you to apply what you’ve learned (are there any that don’t?), it helps to sleep on it first.
“Sleep is overrated,” says Michael, of Manchester, New Hampshire, and this is a common belief. But almost 80 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents report difficulty concentrating when they’ve gotten too little or poor sleep.
And that’s not all: Nearly 40 percent have fallen asleep in class, and about 50 percent fall asleep while studying. Not so great for your GPA (or your stress level). If anything, the benefits of sleep are underrated!
Here are some easy sleep strategies
- Develop a bedtime ritual. Get into the habit of doing the same things just before going to bed night after night, like brushing your teeth, changing into something different, and listening to some relaxing music. Your body will associate this routine with sleep. Start about 30 minutes before you go to bed, or longer if it takes you a while to unwind.
- Keep cool. No need for Antarctic cold, but keeping the temperature at around 65°F (or 18°C) has been shown to help people fall and stay asleep.
- Plan your day. Knowing what you have to do and when assignments are due will help you avoid all-nighter crunches and keep your stress levels down. Focus on a realistic schedule; it does no good to keep a plan if it’s not one you’ll stick with.
- Relax, not just at bedtime. Take up an activity you enjoy and can look forward to, and remember to take breaks in your day. To calm yourself before bed, try listening to relaxing music, practicing meditation techniques (like deep breathing and visualization), or writing out what you need to remember. That way your brain won’t be in overdrive as you try to fall asleep.
- Douse the noise and light. If you have siblings or other people at home with a sleep schedule that’s different from yours, you may need to find ways to keep out the light and block any noise. To drown out disruptive sounds, use a white noise machine, small fan on your nightstand, or earplugs. Wear an eye mask if you’re sensitive to light.
- If you’re still awake, take a break. Lying in bed thinking about how much sleep you’re not getting will only make you feel worse. If you can’t fall asleep or have woken up, get up and do something relaxing for about 20 minutes. This shifts your mindset away from trying to force your body to fall asleep. When you return to bed, you’ll feel less stressed, hopefully allowing you to slip into slumber.
- Chill out with a good book. Try snuggling up with a book you’re reading for pleasure or do some slow stretching. Avoid using electronics; they interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep.
- Wake up when it’s right. It’s easier to rise when you’ve completed a full sleep cycle and are in a phase of light sleep. There are many smartphone apps and websites that help you calculate when it’s best for you to get up, based on when you go to sleep.
Find the snooze button
Many students make major mistakes when it comes to managing their sleep.
Here are some common misconceptions:
I can catch up on zzzzz’s over the weekend. While it may feel great to sleep in, it actually throws off your circadian rhythms, making it harder to sleep at bedtime. If you’ll be up really late one weekend night, try getting up the next day just an hour or two past your normal wake-up time. This will make it easier for your body to adjust to your weekday rhythm.
My bed is for sleeping, eating, studying, and browsing social media, too. Studying in bed is very common, but a no-no. First, feeling the temptation of that soft pillow while you’re elbow-deep in US History is an invitation for dozing off. Since you can’t absorb knowledge by sleeping on your books, it’s better to keep your studying out of the bedroom.
Plus, if you use your bed for all sorts of activities, your brain won’t associate it with rest. So, when you finally do try to get some sleep, you’ll be busy thinking about homework, snacks, catching up on Instagram, and whatever else is on your mind. Make sure your bed is only for sleeping and relaxing.
Those are the don’ts. Now, here are some do’s:
As much as possible, wake up at the same time every morning and go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends. And yes, even when you stayed up till the wee hours the night before.
Cut down on caffeine.
Coffee, black tea, energy drinks, caffeine pills, etc. all have caffeine—a stimulant. If you’re having trouble falling, or staying, asleep, consider cutting back.
Need a nap? Make it short. A brief nap of 20 to 30 minutes can revive you. After a so-called “power nap,” you’ll wake up refreshed and energized, and experience more productivity and better learning later in the day. Longer naps, however, can leave you with a sleep hangover and can mess with your circadian rhythms, making it hard to fall asleep at night.
As a high school student, you may often find yourself “burning the candle at both ends,” late into the night. Even though this isn’t likely to change much in the next few years, you can make sure your sleep is optimal and sufficient. Your body and brain will thank you by performing at their peak. So, get back in touch with your pillow and give yourself a better opportunity to turn those fatigued F’s into alert A’s.
How does exercise improve sleep?
Physical activity is the only thing, other than studying, that can enhance your academic performance. Plus, regular physical activity can actually improve the quality of your sleep. So keep up with your exercise routine, but try not to do it too close to bedtime.
Exercise raises your body temperature and elevates hormones, including endorphins and epinephrine, which make you feel energized. It takes time for these to leave your system and for your body to cool down. By all means, exercise, but try not to do it within three hours of hitting the sack. Running laps around the track in your pajamas? Probably not a good idea.
Student Health 101 survey, conducted August 2012.
American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine’s Wellness Counseling Services, How to (not) pull an all- nighter. Retrieved from http://www.aucmed.edu/pdf/wellness/All-Nighter-Brochure.pdf
Dinges D. F., Pack, F., Williams, K., Gillen, K. A., Powell, J. W., Ott, G. E., Aptowicz, C., & Pack, A. I. (1997). Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4–5 hours per night. Sleep, 20(4), 267–277.
Mander B. A., Santhanam, S., Saletin, J. M., & Walker, M. P. (2011). Wake deterioration and sleep restoration of human learning. Current Biology, 21(5), R183–184.
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Brain basics: Understanding sleep. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, NIH Publication No. 08-3440-c. 16 p.
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Myths and facts. Retrieved from
Stickgold R., Whidbee, D., Schirmer, B., Patel, V., & Hobson, J. A. (2000). Visual discrimination task improvement: A multi-step process occurring during sleep. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12(2), 246–254.