Talk sleep, not sheep

A chronic lack of sleep is nothing to yawn about, and could have more negative effects than you dreamed of. Winifred Tan gets NTU experts and students to share tips on how to develop healthy sleep habits for a good night's rest

Talk sleep, not sheep
It's 1am on a school night. Fighting drowsiness, you finish up your assignment before heading to bed. While waiting to fall asleep, you think to yourself: Why not quickly check in on my favourite social media sites? You spot some interesting news to share with your online friends, which leads to back-and-forth messaging... Before you know it, it's 3am. And you have to wake up in time for an 8am class.

Sounds familiar? Welcome to the growing club of sleep-deprived students in Singapore.

Don't let work and lifestyle trump sleep
In a study of 2,000 university students published in May last year, many reported sleeping an average of only 6.2 hours daily, well below the recommended 7.5 to nine hours.

Such prolonged sleep deficit hurts academic performance, cautions Dr Peter Yeo, Consultant Senior Physician at NTU's Medical Centre.

"I've encountered numerous cases of students coming down with headaches, migraines and nausea after pulling all-nighters preparing for their exams. Some were too sick to even sit for their papers," says Dr Yeo, a trained psychologist and behavioural consultant.

To ensure you make the most of each night's rest, start by cutting down on distractions prior to bedtime, recommends NTU Chinese Medicine Physician Tjioe Yan Yin.

"Stress from school and excessive use of technological devices are common causes of sleep deprivation as they keep the mind active. Avoid doing work or discussing emotional issues two to three hours before you sleep, and remove tempting distractions in the form of laptops or mobile phones."

If you stay in hall, keep your room dark, cool and quiet enough for sleeping.

Have a regular bedtime
You should also stick to a regular bedtime schedule, even if you have to wake up early for lessons only on certain days. Make it a point to get at least seven to eight hours of rest every night.

Asst Prof Dinesh Srinivasan from NTU's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine explains: "Getting quality, uninterrupted sleep is a basic human need, like eating and breathing. Sleep plays an important role in the consolidation of memory – procedural memory (recall of skills and procedures) and declarative memory (recall of knowledge) – both of which are required for a student to excel."

Having a consistent sleep schedule will condition your body to a regular sleep-wake cycle so that you feel more awake and productive during the day, not to mention look better since skin cell renewal is reportedly the fastest at night.

Citing himself as a successful example, engineering undergrad Chen Yumeng says: "As I'm currently doing my industrial attachment, and want to be clear-minded and energetic during the day, I've conditioned myself to go to bed by 11pm and wake up by 7am. I hope to maintain this habit even after I complete the internship."

This is where it helps to exercise good time management and prioritise what's important so that you can complete all your tasks within the day. For those who enjoy sleeping in, consider keeping your schedule free of early-morning commitments, advises Mathematics and Economics undergraduate Teh Tat How.

Take power naps
If you know you've got a tough week ahead, try taking power naps to supplement your nightly shut-eye. Around 10 to 20 minutes of power napping is ideal for a midday boost in alertness and energy, as it limits you to the lighter stages of non-rapid eye movement sleep. Any longer and you risk sleep inertia, a sluggish feeling that lingers after you wake up.

Alternatively, you could nap for a full sleep cycle of 90 minutes, which comes with the benefits of improved memory and creativity, but do this by mid-afternoon to avoid night-time insomnia.

"Not only do power naps alleviate sleep deficits, they also boost brain power in terms of logical reasoning, faster reaction times and stronger symbol recognition. You may be surprised to know that napping is good for the heart, blood pressure, stress levels and even weight management," says Asst Prof Srinivasan.

Stay in good shape
Be it hitting the gym or going for a run, exercising regularly goes a long way in improving the quality of your sleep. This is because exercise reduces stress and regulates your internal body clock.

It is also important to watch what you consume: avoid heavy meals and stimulants (such as coffee, tea and Red Bull) before bedtime, lay off medications like Zyrtec D and Clarinase, which contain Ephedrine, a decongestant, and limit your intake of alcohol. If you smoke or are addicted to computer games, now's a good time to quit, as both activities are known to disrupt sleep.

In short, "maintain a balanced lifestyle with healthy dietary habits," advises Physician Tjioe.

Keep calm and carry on
Last but not least, have a calm, positive outlook to keep stress in check. Residual worries from your day can make it difficult to sleep soundly, so if you need a listening ear, approach NTU's Medical Centre or Student Wellbeing Centre for a private consultation.

"Clear your mind and listen to some soft music to help you fall asleep," suggests NTU peer helper Leong Bi Xiang.

You can also relieve anxiety through a simple relaxation exercise, adds Asst Prof Srinivasan. "Get comfortable in a room with no distractions. Relax your muscles, starting with your toes, and continue upwards towards your head. Become aware of your breathing pattern. Don't worry about the outcome of the exercise; just sit or lie quietly with your eyes closed while breathing slowly."

Good night.
Email your answer, with "Brighter eyes" as the subject line, along with your full name, school/year of study/department (if applicable), contact number and email address, to hey@ntu.edu.sg by 28 February 2014. Winners will be drawn from among entries with the correct answers. Multiple entries from the same person will not be accepted. All hampers are to be collected from the Corporate Communications Office, NTU.
More bedtime tips...
According to Dr Peter Yeo from NTU's Medical Centre, when we hit the sack is governed by our internal body clock, or circadian rhythm.

Depending on your biological tendency, you could be a morning lark (prefer waking up early), a night owl (prefer staying up later), or have a normal sleep pattern. Knowing which type of circadian rhythm you have can work towards your advantage. For instance, by scheduling high-intensity tasks during your peak times, you can effectively get more done in the day and sleep better at night.

The Morningness Eveningness Questionnaire is a popular test used by sleep doctors to assess whether one is a morning lark, a night owl or in between, and to what extent. Take the test here.