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Wake up to the dangers of lack of sleep

Put to bed the notion that sleep is for the weak. Experts say having enough sleep could even give you better grades
by Chrystal Chan

It’s 12.30am in a hall of residence on campus. There’s a buzz in the air – the sound of doors opening and shutting and flip-flops slapping along the corridors. From time to time, boisterous laughter rings out in the courtyard. Sleep? What’s that?

According to second-year business student Jayden Ngooi, sleep is for the weak-willed: “My daytime activities are never-ending. There’s just not enough time to do everything, and to be honest, sleep ranks lowest on my priority list.”

He isn’t alone. Ng Jing Zhi, a third-year English student, gets by with five to six hours of sleep on average a day, and fewer than that during “hell week”, when her assignments are due at the same time.

“Students usually don’t get enough sleep because we are so busy trying to keep up with the rest of the world on social media, which eats up a surprising amount of time and into bedtime hours,” she says.

While both of them get fewer than nine hours of sleep daily, they don’t think they are sleep deprived.

“Everyone is different in terms of their sleep need," says Assoc Prof Shen Biing-Jiun, a clinical health psychologist from NTU’s School of Social Sciences. “The seven to nine hours recommended by health professionals for young adults is a general guide. Why we need sleep is still a mystery. While not everyone requires the same amount of sleep to be well-rested, you need it so your body can repair and restore itself, and conserve energy,” he explains.

Red flags

Sleep deprivation is no laughing matter, says Assoc Prof Shen. Apart from feeling lethargic and sleepy, you may find it harder to concentrate in class and complete your various tasks.

“As you sleep, you are consolidating your memory and all that you’ve learnt in the day. Insufficient sleep and poor quality sleep can also affect your mood. You are likely to be irritable and prone to anger and feelings of sadness or anxiety. You are also less resistant to stress,” he adds.

Assoc Prof Fabian Lim from NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine notes that sleep deprivation worsens memory, awareness levels and the ability to recognise patterns.

“Your vigilance is reduced and you may miss certain visual or social cues and signals in the environment. You will take longer to remember things or notice certain patterns,” says Assoc Prof Lim, whose research found that participants who had their sleep disrupted were less able to accurately remember and match number sequences.

As you sleep, you are consolidating your memory and all that you’ve learnt in the day. Insufficient sleep and poor quality sleep can also affect your mood.

Real risks

Long-term sleep deprivation has been cited as a risk factor for diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease. There have been extreme cases of prolonged sleep deprivation causing death.

A common misconception amongst students is that the time of the day in which you get your snooze on doesn’t matter. Not true, says Assoc Prof Lim. He explains that sleeping at night is important for better quality of sleep due to your internal biorhythm clock. In the day, your body responds to light and releases cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone, which energises you. At night, the opposite happens.

“Cortisol is suppressed, and another hormone, melatonin, is secreted, which makes you yawn and feel sleepy. When you sleep in the day and work at night, it’s not a natural state of affairs,” he says.

However, Assoc Prof Lim is quick to add that your body clock can adapt to different sleeping times, for example, if you are in a different geographic zone, although this varies between individuals.

There’s hope for the sleep deprived – power naps. A 20- to 30-minute siesta when you can’t keep your eyes open is more important than you think.

“Power naps provide quality sleep, especially when you’re fatigued,” says Assoc Prof Lim. “They improve alertness without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with night-time sleep.”

So the proverbial saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” does have some truth to it after all.

Sleep on it

Tips for a good night’s rest from the University Wellbeing Centre

  • Use the bedroom only for sleep so that your brain associates your bedroom and bed with sleep.
  • Dim the lights about an hour before bedtime.
  • Reduce noise (such as from fans).
  • Keep the temperature of the room steady throughout the night.
  • Avoid exposure to bright lights (especially blue light from electronic displays) before you sleep; programs like f.lux can automatically change the colour of your phone or laptop display at night.
  • Get ready for bed an hour before you turn in, and don’t take your worries with you.
  • Don’t go to bed feeling too full or too hungry.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, especially after 2pm.