Read my top tips to improve your sleep and understand how your body clock works.
How many hours of sleep do you think you should be getting each night? Next, consider how many hours of sleep you get on average each night.
My poll on Instagram (@missestruchbiology) revealed that my followers average 6 hours of sleep per night.
In this blog, I will explain the neuroscience of sleep. I will explain to you why sleep is important to physical health, memory and exam success.
Finally, I will give you top tips on how you could improve your sleep, and therefore your studying and health too.
Body Clock and Circadian Rhythm
The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to 3 scientists in 2017 for their work on circadian rhythms. Their work uncovered how molecular mechanisms in your body control your circadian rhythm and how this impacts your body.
But what is a circadian rhythm?
Do you have a time of day that you always feel sleepy or wide awake?
Usually, people are most sleepy in the middle of the night and mid-afternoon after lunch.
This is your circadian rhythm in action! It is your internal daily body clock. Your brain continually cycles between being sleepy and awake.
If you regularly get plenty of sleep, you probably won’t feel the dips in energy as much during the ‘sleepy’ stages of your cycle during the day.
However, if you are not getting enough sleep at night, that is when the problems start.
When you are sleep-deprived, you may really feel the sleepiness hit you mid-day during these sleep/awake cycles.
What Controls the Circadian Rhythm?
The control centre for your circadian rhythm is in your brain. The exact part is the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus receives impulses from the light receptors in your eyes in response to light intensity and the colour of the light.
When it is dark, the impulses sent to the brain will trigger the hypothalamus to release the hormone melatonin. This is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
It typically takes one hour after release for you to fall asleep. This is why you feel sleepy at night, and why your circadian rhythm matches the 24-hour clock.
Teenagers V Adults
Scientists have found that the release time of melatonin differs for you at different ages.
Adults over the age of 21 will typically release melatonin at 9.30 pm. This is why they become tired enough to fall asleep at 10.30 pm. They will stop releasing melatonin between 6 am and 7 am, which is why it is easier for adults to wake up early.
In contrast, Teenagers release melatonin at different times!
It is not known why, but for some reason between the ages of about 13-21, you don’t start releasing melatonin until around 10.30 pm.
Consequently, you won’t feel sleepy until at least 11.30 pm. It also means you will continue to release melatonin until 7 am-8 am. This can make it really hard for you to wake up before 9 am.
Disrupting Your Circadian Rhythm
Your circadian rhythm is most in sync when you have a daily ‘sleep’ routine.
If you always go to bed and wake up at the same time, it sets your body clock. This will make it easier for you to fall asleep and wake up.
A late-night, binge-watching Netflix, cramming for a test or staying out late could offset your rhythm for a few days.
Falling out of sync with your circadian rhythm can make you feel tired, sick, and irritable and impede your ability to concentrate and remember.
Similarly, this is what happens when you travel and have jetlag!
Excessive use of devices, like mobile phones and tablets, negatively impacts your sleep duration and quality.
Phones and tablets emit blue light from their screens, and this delays the release of the hormone melatonin.
Without melatonin, you will feel wide awake and alert, and may constantly wake in the night.
Using your phone in the evenings could be the cause of your insomnia, and this has a detrimental impact on your physical and mental health. Read more on this following the blog link below.
How Much Sleep Is Healthy?
Too much or too little sleep is unhealthy. Do you know how much sleep you should be getting?
On my Instagram poll, you nearly all guessed 8 hours was how much sleep you should be getting.
This is pretty accurate. Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep, and adults (age 21+) need 7-9 hours of sleep to be healthy.
Banking Sleep Does Not Work!
Unfortunately, your body can’t bank sleep hours. Sleeping for 11 hours with a 3-hour afternoon nap one day, and then only sleeping 3 hours the following night adds up to 17 hours of sleep. This is how many hours of sleep you should have in 48 hours; however, it doesn’t work with uneven splits.
This swing of excessive sleep, followed by lack of sleep, completely disrupts your circadian rhythm.
This shifts all your internal physiological mechanisms out of sync and can leave you feeling ill and impact your mental wellbeing.
Look after yourself, and avoid shifts in your sleep pattern.
Routine is key to feeling physically and mentally well, as well as for exam success!
Why is Sleep Important?
Long periods of sleep enable proper sleep cycles. When you sleep you cycle between REM, light sleep and deep sleep.
You only fall into a deep sleep in you are asleep continuously for long enough.
Here is my sleep pattern cycle from Friday night.
Deep sleep is when your body starts to physically repair itself. This includes repairing damaged tissues and the growth of new cells.
Sleep is also essential for strengthening memories.
Whilst you sleep, new pieces of information are processed. This helps to turn short-term memories into long-term memories. This is essential for success in your studies.
Flushing Toxins From The Brain
Toxins accumulate in the brain during the day. While you sleep, these toxins are removed to ensure good health and prevent disease.
The glymphatic system is made up of glial cells in the brain and a clear liquid carrying waste in and around the brain. One key toxin that is removed through this system is Beta-amyloid.
Beta-amyloid is a protein which is accumulated in the brain of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Glial cells help remove this toxin while you are asleep. When you are sleep deprived, this toxin is not removed, and it can negatively impact your memory.
One type of glial cell, responsible for removing dead cells and debris can be over-activated by sleep deprivation.
Removing damaged cells is beneficial, but when these cells go into overdrive, they can start to harm healthy brain cells. Scientists are suggesting this could be why continual sleep deprivation puts you at higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Top Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Finally, now you know how much sleep you should be getting and why here are my TOP TIPS to help you get that sleep!
- Keep to a sleep routine. To avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm, try and go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. This includes weekends, as even two days different will unsettle your body clock.
- Follow a bedtime routine. An hour before you sleep, only engage in activities which will relax you. You should try and shut off from the stresses and anxiety of the day. For example, have a bath, read a book or listen to music. Lots of people find ASMR videos really relaxing and sleep-inducing too. ASMR darling, Sophie Michelle ASMR and Gentle Whispering ASMR are three great accounts! Avoid using your phone and social media, as this will activate your brain and engage you with daily stresses.
- Use blue-light filters. Blue light can prevent the release of melatonin. So, another tip is to turn on the blue-light filter on your devices. You can set these to automatically turn off blue light from sunset to sunrise. However, even the blue-light filter on the screen light will still reduce melatonin production. Therefore, also avoid using tablets or phones an hour before bed. This might be a big change in habit for you, but it will make a massive difference.
- Daily exercise. Regular exercise can help improve your sleep. Light exercise, such as walking to school, can help. However, more active exercises are the most effective at improving sleep. Team sports, running, rowing and swimming are just a few good examples.
- Remove/Turn off electronic devices. From my Instagram poll, many of you have a TV, laptop and mobile phone in your bedroom. Ideally, remove these from your room. These serve as temptations and can prevent you from trying to fall asleep. Failing that, turn off all these electronic devices at the plug. This is to make sure any ‘standby’ lights are off and will prevent any electrical humming sounds.
- Block out light. Streetlights and early sunrises interfere with your melatonin release. If you don’t have blackout curtains, try sleeping with an eye mask to shut out all light.
Cool and Fresh. You will sleep best in a cooler and fresher environment. Make sure your bedroom is not over 18C at night and if it is not too loud outside, an open window will help keep the air fresh.
Avoids naps. Try not to nap during the day, as this disrupts your circadian rhythm. In particular, avoid having a nap after 6 pm.
Consider your food and drink. Do not drink caffeine after 5 pm, this includes tea, coffee and Coke.
Avoid eating heavy and spicy meals within three hours before bed. Digestion can disrupt sleep, so try to have dinner by 7 pm at the latest.