by Lesley Meall
09 Apr 2009
Work, work, work. Sometimes it can seem as if there is no end to it; particularly if you are trying to study for your ACCA qualification as well as hold down a job - or two. Something has to give, and for many students, that something is sleep. 'I've known students fall asleep during lectures in the run up to exams,' says ACCA tutor Dave Sexton, whose experience is not just confined to the classroom. 'Students often think that they can learn more by putting in longer hours,' he says. 'But if you study for 18 hours a day, the amount you learn will be inversely proportional to the time you have not spent relaxing.'
The sleep experts agree. 'Sleep is not for wimps, it's for people who want to do something important with their lives,' says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. Although there are big variations in the amount of sleep needed by individuals, the negative effects of too little sleep are universal. They include metabolic abnormalities, suppression of the immune system, poor memory, reduced mental and physical reaction times, increased hunger, reduced motivation, depression, and even psychosis.
'Lack of sleep can have an extraordinary impact, because sleep deprivation and disruption are associated with a raft of different problems,' says Foster. This is bad news for accountancy students, who need complete control of their critical faculties if they are to stay on top of their studies and fulfil their potential at exam time. 'Students can expect to be affected by any change to their regular sleep pattern,' he warns. This is because anything that disturbs your sleep pattern is likely to contribute to poor performance and lower your level of academic achievement.
'You can survive on little sleep if you are doing safe, routine tasks, but sleep is important if you want to come up with novel solutions to complex problems,' says Foster. 'If you are trying to learn something, you need your wits about you,' adds Sexton. 'If you have not had enough sleep, you will really struggle to concentrate.'
We've all been there: forcing ourselves to re-read something that refuses to sink in. 'If you can't remember a word after you have finished reading a page of notes, it's time to take a break from your studies or get more rest,' suggests Sexton, adding: 'Not doing so will simply reduce your overall learning time.'
Unfortunately, not everyone knows what their personal sleep needs are, but you can find out by doing the sleep profile quiz (see 'what's your sleep profile?' below) and checking to see if you exhibit any of the side-effects of deprivation (see 'recognising the warning signs'). These aren't scientifically conclusive tests, but they will point you in the right direction, which might otherwise be difficult, because sleep needs vary widely from person to person. The amount required to function optimally can, according to Foster, vary from as little as four hours to as many as nine hours (which is about the average for young adults).
Get time on your side
To some extent, the amount of sleep you need and the times when it is best for you to do so, are a function of age and biology. 'Teenagers and people in their early twenties are programmed to go to sleep and wake up relatively late,' according to Foster. 'By puberty, sleep times and wake times drift to even later. This tendency to get up later continues until the age of 19.5 years in women and 20.9 years in men, but by the age of 55, we are getting up as early as we did when we were 10.
Despite these wide variations, you don't have to miss much sleep before you start feeling the effects. According to studies published in the journal Sleep, just knocking a few hours each night from your optimal sleep time can, over a two-week period, be equivalent to two full nights of total sleep deprivation. So it is worth taking any steps you reasonably can to accommodate your personal and biological needs - and not giving in to the lure of artificial stimulants and sedatives when you do not.
'Cigarettes and coffee are very good stimulants,' says Foster. 'But the half-life can be quite long.' In fact, they can stay in your system for many hours afterwards, doing more harm than good. If you drink too much tea or coffee, or consume too many soft drinks containing caffeine during the day, they can prevent you from sleeping when you need to later in the evening. 'Using alcohol and sleeping tablets does not really help,' he warns. This is because the sleep you enjoy as a consequence is not a biological mimic for real sleep, and you will not experience the required physical recovery or mental restructuring.
'If you use caffeine, nicotine and alcohol to change your natural sleep patterns, you get locked into a stimulant–sedative feedback loop,' says Foster.
'Many people are so used to this that they regard it as normal,' he observes. But you are probably cognitively impaired without even realising it. If you are sleep deprived, you are bound to be screwing up, but you won’t know, because you are too tired to perceive it.'
If you have been depriving yourself of sleep, it can be difficult to re-establish a healthy pattern, but there are lots of small things that you can do to help. Start by establishing a routine: go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each day, even if you do not need to be at work or college. Establish a bedtime routine: if you plan to go to bed at 11pm, start your routine an hour earlier with a bath, a warm drink, and some quiet relaxing music. Read something unstimulating (and not emotionally involving) before going to sleep, but don't read anything related to your studies.
According to Foster, changes in the environment in which you sleep can also help to normalise your sleep patterns. 'Remove all distractions from the room,' he says. 'There should be no television or computer.' Also, turn off your mobile phone, to eliminate phone calls and text messages. Anything that could become the focus for your attention is bad news, whether inside or outside your room. So if you are disturbed by ambient noises, opt for earplugs; they can be a cheap and effective way to minimise the impact of external noises beyond your control.
Light has a big impact on your ability to sleep, so switch electric lights off, and if the source is external, mask it with denser, heavier curtains. Many people also resort to heavier duvets, heated blankets or hot water bottles, in the hope that this will make them drowsy at bed-time, but according to Foster, this is a mistake. 'The process of going to sleep includes a drop in your core body temperature,' he explains. 'The body uses the heat to warm up the peripheral blood supply. Because this is part of sleep initiation, it can help to be sleeping in a bedroom that is slightly cool. You may need to use an electric fan or leave the bedroom window open.'
Food for thought
According to Sophia Wong, manager of the dietetics department at Subang Jaya Medical Centre in Malaysia, the food you eat can also have a major impact. 'What you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat can affect sleep, and sleep hormones,' she says, 'by influencing the production of melatonin and serotonin'. Trytophan, which is found in certain foods, is a good source of serotonin, helping you to relax and thereby promote sleep,' she explains. 'That’s why a glass of milk at night helps put you to sleep.'
Foods high in tryptophan include wheat products, barley, yoghurt, tuna, potato, banana, oatmeal, brown rice, and soy protein. Although you won't want to consume them as a bed-time snack, making one or more of them a constituent in your evening meal is less likely to keep you awake later than other types of food. 'Food high in tyramine should be minimised at night as it induces restlessness,' advises Wong, listing alcohol, shrimp paste, processed meats, soy sauce, nuts, seeds, and raisins as culprits.
According to Wong, the timing of your evening meal is also important. 'Try to eat at least four hours before sleep, as it takes at least four to six hours for food to be to digested,' she says. 'Avoid spicy or oily food as it takes longer to digest.' However, some evening snacks are less likely to disrupt your sleep than others. 'A snack high in complex carbohydrates can be considered, as it helps release serotonin and promotes sleep,' she explains, adding: 'Try a bowl of cereal or oats with milk, or toasted bread.'
All of this may seem extreme, but if it helps you to develop a healthy attitude to sleep, it will pay dividends in both the short term and long term. 'I've spoken to students who have come out of the exams crushed by how badly they have done, despite knowing the work, because they simply couldn't concentrate on the day,' says Sexton. 'So it's never a good idea to stay up all night. When you walk into that exam room, you want your brain to be wide awake; if that means planning when you eat, sleep, and wake almost as carefully as your revision timetable, then so be it.'
WHAT'S YOUR SLEEP PROFILE?
Your attitude to sleep is important to your overall health and well‑being. Visit the BBC website's sleep profiler and find out what sort of sleeper you are. After answering the questions, you will be told what sort of sleeper you are, and get advice on how to modify your sleep environment and lifestyle to boost your alertness during the day and increase your chances of dropping off at night.
You may discover you need as much as nine hours sleep a night, and find that a 15‑minute daytime nap is more effective than a cappuccino at beating tiredness.
RECOGNISING THE WARNING SIGNS
One of the most troublesome effects of sleep deprivation is the inability to realise just how tired you are. Recognise the warning signs:
- Relying on your alarm clock to wake you every day
- Waking feeling unrefreshed
- Being short-tempered and easily irritated
- Suffering from excessive daytime sleepiness
- Needing to re-read the same work over and over again
- Having dark circles under your eyes
- Struggling to concentrate.
When the neuroscientist Jan Born studied the relationship between sleep and creativity, he found significant variations in his subjects' approaches and ability to perform. Those who were familiarised with a mathematical task and then allowed to sleep overnight before trying to apply what they had been shown were more successful than those who were asked to immediately apply their knowledge, and those who were kept awake all night and then asked to perform.