Getting a boost in Vitamin Z: Cultivating good sleep hygiene for exam success

If you want to be happier, healthier and mentally sharper, then the simplest thing you can do is to develop a good sleep habit.

Sleep is our body’s recovery mechanism. We need good sleep to think well, feel good and perform at our best. Research shows that students who don’t get enough sleep and/or sleep poorly are more likely to have a depressed mood and increased levels of anxiety.

But not only that, sleep is critical to the learning process. When you sleep, your brain is hard at work shifting information into your long-term memory, strengthening areas of importance and deleting irrelevant bits of information.

The bottom line is if you want to excel at school (and in life), then you need to make sleep a priority.

So why in the world is sleep usually the first thing students’ sacrifice to get more study done before exams?

Pulling an all-nighter before an exam (to cram more study in) is one of the worst things you can do.

As Dr Barbara Oakley states in her book A mind for numbers:

“Not getting enough sleep the night before a test [or exam] can negate any other preparation you’ve done.”

It’s like an athlete training for months for a big event but then going out clubbing the night before the event and waking up with a hangover the next morning. You know the athlete has just sabotaged their chances of success. The same thing applies with exams.

Lack of Sleep = Drunken Behaviour

Studies have found that a lack of sleep is as damaging to your cognition as being drunk.

So when you skimp on sleep the night before an exam, you’re effectively walking into the exam room as if you’ve had several beers or glasses of wine. You don’t need me to tell you that this is not a very good idea.

That terrible brain fog and seediness you feel after not getting a good night’s sleep is due to the build up of toxic waste in your brain. What a lot of students don’t realise is a good night’s sleep cleans out all the macro-molecular junk that has accumulated while you’ve been awake.

So we develop bad habits to help us stay awake and get through the day. You end up overriding your internal biology and putting unnecessary strain on your body. Let me explain …

The Stimulant-Sedative Loop

You’ve stayed up until the early hours of the morning studying. You wake up and you’re feeling pretty average. The thing about being tired is that you crave fatty and sugary snacks. You want caffeine to perk you up. So you have these things (e.g. chocolate and energy drinks) to get through the day, but then your brain is too hyped to sleep. So what do you do?

You take a sleeping pill. But the problem with sleeping pills is they don’t increase the amount of decent sleep you get.

So when you wake up, you feel really groggy (Ugh). You need a coffee or energy drink to get going. But that soon wears off and you need another energy drink. And then a pill to wind down …

You end up in this vicious cycle of overriding your internal biology. This is what sleep scientists refer to as the Stimulant-Sedative Loop.

Case Example: The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley

A classic example of someone who was stuck in a Stimulant-Sedative Loop was the king, Elvis Presley.

Elvis had a lot of trouble sleeping. He was constantly worried that he wouldn’t get enough sleep to do a good show, so he’d take sleeping pills.

He was also addicted to amphetamines. These were legally available as an appetite suppressant, so for a time they helped keep Elvis’s weight down but they also kept him wide awake.

So when Elvis was on tour, here is what he’d consume each day:

He’d wake up in the afternoon and take ten medications to make him feel awake.
An hour before a show he’d take another seven medications.
Immediately before the show he’d have a shot of caffeine or a caffeine placebo.
After the show he’d take another five drugs and bedtime sedatives.

Elvis felt tired a lot of the time, so he craved fatty and sugary foods. One of Elvis’s favourite meals was a peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich. Then there was the Fool’s Gold Loaf: a hollowed out loaf of sourdough bread, stuffed with an entire jar of peanut butter, an entire jar of grape jam and half a kilogram of bacon. And then it was deep-fried. It’s hard to imagine someone could each something like this. But Elvis did. Go Google it. You’ll be shocked.

In last few years of his life, Elvis was consuming between 10,000-12,000 calories a day.

He died at the age of 42.

Now I realise Elvis is an extreme example. But this is what happens when you don’t take care of yourself. You get sick. All your systems get thrown out of whack. So you need to cultivate better sleep hygiene than Elvis. Otherwise, you could get sick too.

Developing an Effective Sleep Ritual

Many of us expect to be able go from full speed to deep sleep in under a minute. But it doesn’t work like this.

You need to spend 20–30 minutes winding down before you go to bed.

You can do a number of different activities in your wind down time, but there are two key things you want to do:

1) Engage in activities that calm your mind down.
2) Set up structures to help you get to bed at a reasonable hour.

Calming your mind down
Here are some different ways you can relax your mind before hitting the sack:

1) Dim the lights
2) Write and get your thoughts down on paper
3) Read a book (but nothing too mentally stimulating)
4) Switch off all electronic devices and remove them from your room
5) Have a bath
6) Meditate
7) Do some gentle yoga stretches
8) Listen to soothing music
9) Avoid refined sugar and caffeine
10) Have a warm cup of milk or herbal tea

If you don’t want to part with screens, change the blue light being emitted from the device to an orange light with an app like f.lux. The orange light won’t mess with your melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy).

But just keep in mind that if you’re going to continue using your technological devices, it’s best to log off social media.

It’s not just the light that matters when it comes to your technological devices. It’s the fact that using these devices often displaces sleep and the media content consumed can be highly emotionally/mentally/physiologically arousing, thereby making it harder for you to fall asleep.

As Dr Lynette Vernon states in her PhD thesis titled, The role of problematic technology use for adolescents: The importance of sleep for wellbeing:

“For adolescents highly invested in social media, if negative feedback is received at night, prior to bedtime or after lights out then it is highly likely stimulating negative content elucidates an emotional arousal (for example, envy or anxiety) which impedes sleep onset.”

In other words, content may appear in your feed that makes you feel lousy. For example, pictures of friends having fun on exotic holidays may trigger feelings of jealousy. Now, if you’re at home alone (with no plans to go anywhere exciting anytime soon) then you may start to think your life is pretty average. Because you don’t feel great, it’s going to be harder for you to fall asleep and have a good night’s rest.

So it’s best to be screen free in your wind down time. Don’t risk feeling ‘Insta-jealousy’ or ‘Insta-bad’.

Getting to bed at a reasonable hour

I need a cue to remind me when it’s time to start winding down for bed. There are two cues that work well for me:

1) My alarm going off, and
2) Being booted off the Internet by an Internet blocker app.

In the evening, when I’m not feeling particularly sharp, it’s just too easy to faff around on the Internet until late at night. It will be 10pm and I’ll say to myself, “I’ll just write one more email” or “I’ll just check Facebook for one minute”. But one-minute is never actually just one minute. One minute is nearly always an hour or more.

If you use a Chrome Internet browser, you can get a Chrome extension called Stay Focused. This will lock you out of the Internet at set periods of time. For myself, I get booted off at 9pm. I can’t access any more sites until 6am in the morning.

To Sum Up

Sleep is critical to living a good life. It’s also critical to learning information effectively. With this in mind, it’s time to start prioritising good sleep to be the best version of you.

What could you do to get a better night sleep? Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to sleep better? Feel free to post your ideas below.