Sleep tight, study right

Sleep – we all need it, but in today’s get-ahead, high-pressured world, how many of us actually get as much of it as we really need, or try to get by on a little less than is probably good for us? The situation is further compounded when trying to combine work with studies

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For students holding down a full-time job during the day while working towards their ACCA Qualification in the evening, sleep becomes even more of a precious commodity.

Sleep is generally considered the third pillar of health after diet and exercise. In fact, according to Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey in the UK, studies have also shown that sleep doesn’t necessarily serve just one single particular function, but many for both the body and brain, and it certainly plays a crucial role in cognition and memory consolidation.

So are you getting enough sleep to maximise the effectiveness of your study time and, if not, why not and what can you do about it?

What is ‘enough sleep’?

How much sleep does the average person actually need? ‘The easiest answer to that question is that the average person doesn’t exist,’ says Dijk. ‘We all accept that a baby or young child may need up to 10 to 14 hours of sleep a day, and then as we move into adolescence and adulthood we often cite eight hours of sleep per night as normal. But an 18-year-old is very different to a 50 or 60-year-old in terms of its sleep needs, and it’s generally accepted that sleep need may go down with age.

‘When I ask students how much sleep they get or if they get nine hours or more, many of them – in particular young women – raise their hands, so it does seem that young people do generally need more sleep than older people. However, overall, sleep need is not fixed for the average person because they simply don’t exist,’ says Dijk.

For a sleep specialist, Dijk suggests a surprisingly simple question to ask yourself if you want to know if you’re getting enough sleep. Ask yourself if you’re sleepy! However, he does go on to suggest that perhaps another important question to ask yourself is how much effort you have to put in to concentrate to do your work or studies?

‘We are all probably familiar with the phenomenon that after a good holiday we return and for the first few days everything seems to be a little bit easier because you are rested. When sleep is disrupted or insufficient, people are capable of maintaining a level of efficiency, but they have to put in more effort to maintain that performance,’ he says.

Also ask yourself whether you have to set an alarm clock everyday to wake up at a reasonable time? If the answer is yes because you went to sleep very late, the question then becomes why do you go to sleep so late?

‘Naturally, there can be many different reasons for this,’ says Dijk. ‘It’s now relatively easy to stay up late at night because we have plenty of light sources in our homes or study rooms, and these lights can make you feel relatively alert. You can also be drinking coffee or other energy drinks containing caffeine or sugar that keep you stimulated. Generally, it’s much easier for us to delay bedtime nowadays because we feel it’s more within our control, but then we struggle in the morning and suffer sleep deprivation.’

Sleep problems

But what if you’re not deliberately staying up late to study and instead getting into bed at a reasonable hour, but still have problems sleeping? According to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep and energy consultant at the Nightingale Hospital in London, it’s our daytime activity that affects our twilight hours.

‘The vast majority of sleep problems are not created at night, but by what we do to our bodies during the day,’ she says. ‘The modern routine of poor posture, sedentary lifestyles, poor nutrition, fear, anxiety, anticipation, talking and living too fast, and doing too much all create barriers to a good night’s sleep. Modern lifestyles have resulted in people habituating to living in stress mode – running on the sympathetic nervous system, fuelled by adrenaline and cortisone, without even realising that they’ve been doing so.’

We all try and cope with this modern lifestyle, but sleep disturbance is a very sensitive indicator that something’s going wrong. If you are stressed out at work or with your studies, sleep disruption or poorer sleep quality are often the first signs that you are finding it difficult to cope. Establishing a reasonable work/life/study balance could be the basis of a whole other article, but in the meantime, how can you maximise your chances of a good night’s sleep?

Sleep easy

Much of it is common sense. First, try and establish a regular routine, and try to keep the differences between study days and days off to a minimum. Another important element is to make sure that in the evening before you want to go to sleep you take enough time to relax one or two hours beforehand, and obviously don’t drink lots of coffee or other stimulants. Also, be aware that the light you’re getting from your laptop, phone or e-reading device can cause problems with falling asleep. Light in general is a stimulant, but there is good evidence that the blue light emitted by these devices is even more so than light of longer wavelengths.

When you do go to bed, try and make sure the temperature in your room is comfortable, that you’re getting fresh air and that noise is kept to a minimum. It’s probably not a good idea to eat to close to bedtime either. And if you’re a fitness fanatic and think that a strenuous workout is going to wear you out and relax you, think again. According to Dijk, exercise can be quite ‘activating’ and there is data to show that exercise too close to sleep can interrupt it as well.

As working students you should know that there’s always going to be a trade-off in terms of what you spend your precious time on – between getting enough sleep or spending more time studying for the ACCA Qualification.

‘My advice is to keep an eye on your sleep and if you experience problems falling asleep or maintaining sleep, this may indicate that your system is under quite a lot of pressure,’ says Dijk.

The bottom line is that trying to get by on too little sleep will be bad for your body, bad for your brain and, ultimately, bad for your studies. Perhaps it’s time for a snooze?

"If a gap in your CV is recent and long you will have to acknowledge it and explain to some degree"

Michael Page