As we slowly work our way out of summer and into fall, questioning the productivity of said summer -or at least I am- many of us are starting to deal with school. Kids and adults alike are gearing up for fall classes and the work that goes along with it; adjusting to new schedules, sorting out homework and assignments, prepping classwork and soon enough, studying for tests. When I was in high school and an undergraduate in college, sleep became an afterthought (except for the times when a friend and I “competed” to see who could survive on less sleep- not the best idea, in case you were wondering). There would be times when I would work on a paper or study all night, maybe getting an hour or two of sleep before the big test or due date. I remember pushing through the tests, only to spend the rest of the day feeling like my brain was a delay as my thoughts felt like they were slowly wading through water.
After graduation sleep slowly became more and more important. When I was working and working out and then eventually returned to taking classes, sleep had transitioned to the priority. With that shift in priorities though, it forced me to change a lot of my other habits as well. Instead of staying up late (with lots of distractions and Facebook checking) to finish a paper or to study, I started going to bed earlier to feel more refreshed and then getting up a little earlier in the morning and really focus on working hard for several hours without distractions. Making sleep a priority forced me to be more organized but also allowed me to be a better student and worker. Doing things last minute simply isn’t an option so there’s no “cramming” going on, so there’s less overall stress and anxiety and the information I learn sticks better.
With all that being said, I wanted to discuss why sleep is so imperative! Sleep plays an important role in your general health both mentally and physically and according to the National Sleep Foundation young adults and adults alike (ages 18-64) should getting somewhere between 7-9 hours per night. While there’s a spectrum of what people need which might be slightly higher and lower than those amounts, it’s important to assess your lifestyle factors to address the quality and quantity of sleep you need.
When you sleep, your brain has time to recover and prepare for the next day. According to the National Institutes of Health, when you sleep, the brain forms “new pathways to help you learn and remember information”. Basically, proper sleep allows you to learn and recall information better. Learning and memory is often divided into three categories, acquisition, how your brain is introduced to new information, consolidation, the process in which your brain sorts and remembers it, and recall, the ability with which your brain can access the information. It’s during sleep that a lot of your ability to consolidate information comes in due to sleep being the time that the neural pathways are strengthened.
Remember when children throw tantrums when they’re tired? There’s a reason for that and adults do the same thing. Recent studies have found that sleep deprivation actually lowers your brain’s threshold for processing and reacting to emotional information. In short, when you are sleep deprived, your brain has trouble separating between emotional and neutral information and stimuli, essentially causing you to overreact to things that normally wouldn’t bother you.
Better Physical Health
Many studies have found that sleep can have a substantial impact on physical health, ranging from heart health, to your weight and your ability to fight off a cold. People who sleep less than 5 hours a night have been found to have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Similarly, those who sleep less than 6 hours have been found to have more weight-related issues. Even mildly reduced amounts of sleep can cause heart issues and other cardiovascular diseases. Lack of sleep can also have a substantial impact on your body’s immune system and strength, thus determining how well it can fight off a cold or other illness.
If you work out a lot, sleep is especially important, as it promotes better muscle recovery. When you sleep, your body transitions between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep cycles. When you are in REM cycle, your brain is very active and is forming neural pathways to facilitate memory and learning. During non-REM cycles, your brain is resting with very little activity, which allows the blood to more readily travel to the muscles, thus increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients it receives. This process allows them to heal better. During this time, the pituitary gland also releases a growth hormone, which further promotes recovery and repair of muscles and tissues.
While adjusting a sleep schedule can be hard, and I certainly can say from experience that getting proper sleep doesn’t always happen every night, I hope you’ll join me in working to make it a priority!