More than a third of Americans are under slept, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A minimum of 7 hours per night are recommended to avoid health problems such as obesity, heart disease and a range of mental disorders. If you are undertaking a learning program, then sleep is even more important. Without enough sleep, your brain will be unable to process information properly, making learning far harder than it has to be.
The Effect of Sleep on the Brain
There have been a number of Harvard studies detailing the link between sleep and learning. If you spend a few hours learning a new concept and then dream about it, studies show you will have greater memory of the concept. It seems that during the dream phase, memories become consolidated into the long-term memory. Reading information is one thing, but without sleep it can be hard to retain that information for a long time.
REM sleep, the deepest part of sleep in which dreams occur, have been shown to have the greatest effect on your ability to learn. In one study, those who entered REM sleep performed 40% better on a test than those who had non-REM sleep. This shows that beyond just increasing alertness, REM sleep can boost the brain’s creative problem solving capabilities.
How to Improve Sleep
If you suffer chronic insomnia, you can try using sleeping pills to aid sleep. Always get the advice of a doctor and make sure the pills are safe, but for many people this is an effective solution to serious sleep deficiency.
However, if you are able to sleep but find yourself feeling less than refreshed in the morning, there are a few steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep. Firstly, you need a routine. Consistently going to sleep and waking up at the same time allows you to sync up with your body’s preferred sleeping hours. Ideally, you will go to sleep when you feel tired and wake up when you are ready, without an alarm clock.
To achieve this natural sleep cycle, focus on your diet. There are natural drinks that aid sleep, while caffeine and sugary drinks should be for the morning only. Big meals should also be eaten well before bed and of course a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables will aid sleep better than saturated fats and sugars. For a nighttime snack, try yogurt or a banana.
Wake yourself up with plenty of natural sunlight, and then limit the amount of light you’re exposed to before bed. The light emitted from your computer, phone and TV screens will suppress melatonin, the hormone that aids sleep, so should be avoided at least an hour before you wish to sleep.
Following these tips will ensure you stay asleep for 7 hours and settle into the essential REM sleep. This will leave you feeling refreshed and alert so that you can study more effectively. Then, as you sleep, this new knowledge will be processed and filed into long-term memories.
Written by Sally Perkins