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Sleep and Exams

4 December 2013 No Comment

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Not really.

It’s the end of the semester (yay!) and exams are upon us (boo!). When studying takes over your life, the first thing to go is sleep.

Dr David Higgins, President of St Joseph’s Hospital, offered some insight into why people sleep and how students can sleep better. He said getting a good night’s sleep is “very, very important”.

According to Higgins, there are two waves of sleep: deep- or slow-wave sleep and dreaming sleep.

During deep-wave sleep, the body starts to restore itself. Hormone levels rise, and it’s when the body repairs and grows. This growth trend begins in childhood and continues through the early twenties. Believe it or not, those in their early twenties are still growing – even if we don’t see a physical difference.

Dreaming sleep is just what it sounds like – it’s when people dream. This is when the brain starts to consolidate memory, which is especially important when you have a highly intensive, memory-oriented lifestyle. Sounds like students, right?

The optimal amount of sleep needed for a student is between seven and eight hours per night. But when exams are coming up, that number drops as students sit up all night to cram in as much study time as possible.

Dr Higgins said that working hard before sleeping is the best way to get information in. Studying at night is great, but the body needs time to consolidate that memory. Cue dreaming sleep. This is when the stuff you learned the night before gets settled into your brain. Higgins suggests that you “work hard before sleep and study hard after sleep… it’s the best way of getting information in.”

Dr Higgins said that if you really must study before an exam, try studying a few hours before bed, then getting up a bit early and revising. This way, the information you took in before you went to sleep has had time to cement itself in your mind, and you can refresh yourself in the morning.

If you’re a night owl – staying up late, then sleeping in in the morning – then you need to start planning ahead now for those morning exams. If you normally sleep until noon, then getting up in the morning for an 8:00 exam is like getting up in the middle of the night. It’s hard, but you need to start getting to sleep earlier and getting up earlier in preparation for that exam morning.

To help get to sleep when you’re starting to adjust your schedule, try doing something high-energy before bed, or reading a book that forces you to use your brain. If you wear out your mind before you go to bed, you’ll be more tired and able to fall asleep easily. Avoid using your phone or computer while falling asleep, as the blue light can actually trick your body’s hormones and make you into a night owl.

Not getting enough sleep leads to what Dr Higgins referred to as a “sleep debt”. This means your body has been borrowing energy that you need to pay back. As a rule, people shouldn’t need more than nine or ten hours per night to function well. Additionally, when you wake up in the morning, you should be good for 12-16 hours until you need to sleep again. If you find that you’re building up a sleep debt, your body will need to catch up on that sleep eventually, which is why weekends exist.

That being said, if you find that you’re sleeping more than ten hours per night and are still tired, you likely have some sort of sleep disorder or depression and should see a doctor.

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