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Why getting a good night’s sleep is essential

Have you ever neglected sleep in favour of meeting a deadline or working on a new project you’re  enthusiastic about? Many university students have a tendency to neglect sleep, even if it’s just  once in a while, with up to 60% of all students suffering from a poor sleep quality. A further 7.7%  of university students meet all criteria of an insomnia disorder. This trend indicates that there is a  serious problem when it comes to students and sleep, with some experts recommending that  specialised treatment is needed. But how exactly does sleep impair creativity and the average student’s ability to work?  

While it can be tempting to stay up late and finish your work in one night, there are actually  several negative effects of missing just 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night. At least 7 hours of sleep a  night is advisable for adults, but plenty of students won’t achieve this on a regular basis. This affects function in both the left and the right side of the brain, greatly impairing creativity— among  many other different elements.  

There are two main ways that sleep improves creativity: pattern recognition and memory consolidation. For starters, sleep allows the brain to auto-evaluate, meaning it can assess a problem from earlier without outside interruptions. A Harvard Medical study in 1993 found that  participants, who were told to think about a problem they had to solve before sleeping, were able to problem-solve while they were asleep. Over half of the participants dreamt about the issue and a quarter of them found a solution during their dream cycle. This isn’t the only process that the  brain completes while sleeping: it also transfers memories from the hippocampus into the cortex, so that they become part of the long term memory. Memory consolidation plays a role in both  creativity and problem-solving, as creativity is optimal when our brains can access and apply information to situations at hand.  

Furthermore, in order for the brain to be functional, sleep needs to be restful: it isn’t just about how many hours somebody sleeps at night. While asleep, your body cycles 3 to 5 times through the  stages of non-REM and REM sleep, (Rapid Eye Movement). Researchers found that the group  that was allowed to have both types of sleep saw an increase in creative thinking ability,  compared to control groups that were only allowed either REM or non-REM sleep. One way to check whether your sleep is restful is by using a smartwatch, which can monitor how much REM  sleep you get. If you don’t have a device that can do this, it’s also notable that REM sleep is when dreams take place— if you wake up in the middle of a dream, it’s likely you haven’t rested well.  

In order for the brain to be functional, sleep needs to be restful

Adenosine levels can be affected by restless sleep, which is the chemical that causes you to feel drowsy when you wake up in the morning. If a person has slept well, adenosine levels will  gradually build up throughout the day and mean that they feel more awake. This will make it much  easier to concentrate and focus on tasks. People who are sleep deprived are twice as likely to make mistakes than those who got a full night’s rest. However, a study found that 31% of all students suffered from morning tiredness, which could be linked to their adenosine levels being too low.

Another part of the brain that’s greatly affected by sleep is the amygdala, which is 60%  more reactive when running on less than seven hours of sleep: this is the part of the brain that  causes people to make snap decisions and has also been linked to negative emotions and mood  swings, including aggression. It is also why a lack of sleep can lead to an increase of stress and  anxiety. Usually, the prefrontal cortex controls the amygdala and helps prevent us from making  bad decisions, but it has far less jurisdiction when the brain is overtired.  

A lack of sleep can lead to an increase of stress and anxiety

There are so many positive aspects to sleeping for around seven to eight hours a night that you might be wondering how you can get better rest.  

Firstly, experts recommend setting a regular routine as one of the best ways to sleep better. Dr Colleen Ehrnstrom, who is an expert in sleep studies and insomnia, recommends getting up at the  same time every morning “even if you have a terrible night of sleep”. She says it’s better to compensate by taking a nap later in the day, rather than sleeping in longer than usual.  

Secondly, you’ll sleep better if you avoid using electronic devices for an hour before bedtime. Blue  light causes your brain to think that it’s still daytime and this can suppress the production of  melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. If you find that using devices helps you relax before  bed, most will have an option that allows you to turn off blue light or schedule them to do so at  certain times of day. You can also put a timer on your phone if you feel like you’ll be unable to put it down at bedtime. Similarly, keeping your room dark and cool will also help keep your levels of  melatonin up, as exposure to light may reduce your melatonin levels.  

Thirdly, when structuring your new bedtime routine, there are two other factors you should  account for: food and a bath or shower. It’s important to make sure that you don’t eat dinner too late. You should leave at least three hours between eating and sleeping, to allow your body time  to digest: otherwise, your body will be too busy digesting to rest. Taking a bath or shower before  bed can also help you fall asleep easier, as they cause your body temperature to rise a little: the ideal time to sleep is when your core body temperature is dropping.  

It’s common for students to stay awake late or get up early, in order to meet their deadlines on time, but science shows that this is actually bad for our health. As well as impairing creativity and memory in the short term, prolonged periods of sleep loss can lead to neurodegenerative  diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. So, while it may seem easy to write off a bad night’s  sleep as not a big deal, it’s actually very important to maintain a regular sleep schedule.


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