Words by Beth Pratt
Sleep is an essential biological need to maintain your life support system, yet two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of sleep.
In fact, over the last one hundred years, our total amount of sleep has decreased dramatically, with a 1940s survey demonstrating that the average adult was sleeping eighteen hours per night and now, in the UK, the average is six hours and forty-nine minutes.
Every major disease in the developed world has significant links to a lack of sleep, with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer displaying causal links. As well as this, there is an intimate relationship between mental health and sleep, with deep REM sleep shaving off our sharp emotional edges, prohibiting feelings of anxiety and depression. Despite this, sleep deprivation (less than seven hours of sleep) is encouraged as soon as you delve into your first week of university, with club nights temptingly lined up every night of the week and 9 am lectures greeting you the morning after. Therefore, it may be of interest to consider how you can implement a healthy sleep pattern back into student culture to promote positive change in your physical and mental wellbeing.
The basics begin with achieving seven to nine hours of sleep per day. Once you have established a routine that allows for this amount of sleep, which may take time, regularity within that routine will anchor your sleep and improve its quality. Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time makes sense because our bodies are designed to revolve around regularity. Regular exercise will enhance this further.
Falling asleep seems to be becoming increasingly difficult, paralleled with increasing stress and anxiety in students.
In fact, last year The Guardian spoke on a poll of almost 38,000 UK students that suggested that rates of psychological distress and illness are on the rise in universities, with alarmingly high levels of anxiety. Therefore, it is no surprise that stress and anxiety are the leading cause of insomnia.
For you to fall asleep effectively, you have to switch off the branch of the nervous system that is pushed into fight or flight drive-by stress and anxiety. This is the enemy of sleep, releasing cortisol, an activating stress hormone, in the brain. Studies have shown that journaling before bed allows you to fall asleep in half the time because it enables you to identify what is stressing you out. Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system to address the stress, through deep breathing techniques that allow the body to rest and digest. Technology blocks melatonin, the hormone that works to regulate your sleep-wake cycle, delaying your peak of sleep by 3 hours. It is the blue light emitted from technology that harms the melatonin and so it is encouraged that you turn of applications at least an hour before bed.
For many first years, the prospect of fresher’s week and all that it entails can be overwhelming. Pair moving away from home, meeting new people and trying to make friends with the countless events and club nights put on during fresher’s and the outcome can result in drinking excessive amounts of alcohol as a classic coping mechanism. The social constructs around drinking tell us that alcohol is fun and being sober is boring, which only encourages the vicious cycle of numbing anxiety with alcohol further. Unfortunately, alcohol is often a misunderstood chemical. Some students will inevitably be on a quest for impenetrable confidence, and many students both new and old will indulge in a lot of alcohol during welcome week, it’s just important to be aware of the effects this can have on our sleep cycle.
For students embarking on a brand-new life path, working on developing a healthy sleep cycle is something you’ll be very thankful for a few months down the line when deadlines start looming.
Despite what you may have been told, alcohol is not a sleep aid. Instead, it is a sedative that fragments your sleep. After a night of drinking, you will not wake up feeling refreshed and restored because alcohol blocks your REM sleep, your emotional first aid which regulates mental health and mood. This means you’re much more likely to become sleep-deprived, and unfortunately, you don’t know how badly you are suffering when you don’t get enough precious Z’s. Our natural killer cells, that eliminate dangerous or unwanted elements such as cancer cells, are a critical part of our immune system. If you were to be limited to four hours sleep for one night after traipsing in from a club at four, and then waking up for a 10 am lecture, there would be a 70% drop in your natural killer cells.
Sleep may seem simple but it’s easy to push it aside and not prioritise getting the right amount of downtime.
In reality, sleep is the very best life insurance policy you could ever wish for, and it is an aspect of an individual’s wellbeing that should be prioritised whether you’re a student or a CEO.