Sleep is perhaps the most crucial aspect of a pre-exam health plan. When we are sleep deprived, we struggle to focus, we react more slowly, we have decreased creativity and problem-solving abilities. Sleep is also essential for memory formation. When we sleep, our brains consolidate information from the day and store it as long-term memories. Without a high-quality sleep, we become more forgetful- not helpful when trying to memorize a long list of things for an exam!
When studies look at the impact of sleep deprivation on humans, there are drastic reductions in cognitive processing (taking in information we’ve gathered and using it). Sleep not only helps in the process of forming memories, but also makes our brains more resilient to damage that may occur to this stored information. Sleep helps us make connections to the various things we have learned throughout the day. For example: instead of just memorizing a long list of dates for a history exam, sleep can help us integrate these dates with relevant information present in the brain already- like why these dates would be of importance.
Sleep deprivation not only impacts our working memory, attention, and long-term memory, it also decreases our ability to make decisions. Decision making is a fundamental aspect of exam writing, especially if your exams consist of making 100 decisions on a multiple-choice exam. So, if you’re staying up late to cram for an exam the next day, you may want to re-think your strategy!
Although sleep needs vary per individual, a general guideline is to get 8 hours of high-quality sleep. Struggling to get to bed on time, or having trouble sleeping when you get into bed? You may want to work on your sleep hygiene. The following are a list of things you should consider if trying to improve your sleep. – As always, this isn’t medical advice and please consult a healthcare professional if you are struggling with insomnia.
Tips to improve your sleep hygiene:
1. Get a routine. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day, even on weekends and days off! This regular rhythm will make you feel better and will give your body something to work from.
2. Sleep when sleepy. Only try to sleep when you actually feel tired or sleepy, rather than spending too much time awake in bed.
3. Get up & try again. If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bright light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something with a dim light. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.
4. Avoid caffeine & nicotine at least 4-6 hours before bed. This includes: coffee, black tea, most sodas, and chocolate. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep
5. Avoid alcohol. It is also best to avoid alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. Many people believe that alcohol is relaxing and helps them to get to sleep at first, but it actually decreases the quality of sleep.
6. Bed is for sleep and sex. Try not to use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex, so that your body comes to associate bed with sleep. If you use bed as a place to watch TV, eat, read, work on your laptop, pay bills, and other things, your body will not learn this connection.
7. Create a sleeping environment. Your bedroom should be conducive to sleep. Meaning it should be dark and quiet. Black out curtains are good for this or an eye mask if that isn’t possible. If your room is noisy, try turning on a fan or invest in ear plugs.
8. Decrease your use of electronics 2 hours before going to bed. The exposure to a large amount of light throws off your circadian rhythm and tricks your brain into thinking it is daytime rather than night which limits the amount of melatonin produced. If this is not possible for some reason, turn brightness down, put your device on night mode (iphone), download flux app (mac), or invest in a pair of blue blocker glasses.
Stay tuned for the next step in optimizing cognition with a focus on: supplements!