Sleep Your Way Through School

Undergrad may have been peppered with all-nighters and parties into the wee hours of the morning (for some of us), but grad school has a different flavor.

You’re older, wiser, and maybe just a little more heavily affected by jolts to your sleeping schedule. So let’s talk about the importance of sleep, especially as a student.

It’s hard to argue with sleep’s vital role in memory and learning. New research suggests that structures in our brain called dendrites grow and are strengthened during sleep. These dendrites build bridges so neurons can talk with each other, essentially making it easier to retrieve memories or factoids for that 64-question pop quiz.

Besides memory formation, sleep also gives the brain a chance to send out its garbage trucks to collect the junk and gunk of the day. This is called the glymphatic system and it acts like a series of expandable pipes in the brain that grow in size while you sleep to give waste a pathway out. The sheer amount of information processed during grad school (the definition of laissez faire capitalism, the password for your new school email, directions to the nearest coffee shop) makes junk clearing, and thus sleeping, an absolute necessity.

Clearly, sleep is crucial for maximum performance both in the classroom and in the office; and great sleep is also fairly attainable.

A few tips to sleeping your way through school:

Keep a consistent schedule

Try to wake up and go to bed around the same time each day. The circadian clock is a strong alarm and the more consistent you are with your schedule, the easier it will be to fall asleep and wake up each morning and night.

Exercise

A tired body is sleep’s best friend. Maintaining an exercise regime through school relieves stress, helps clear your mind for learning, and go figure: you’ll sleep better. Studies have found that those who exercise 150 minutes a week (that’s a mere 21 minutes per day) sleep significantly better and are more alert during the day than those who do not. Exercise and sleep serve to complement each other, your body, your health, and your mind: it’s a winning combo no matter how you look at it.

Avoid phones before bed

Putting your phone away from your bed takes away the temptation of scrolling through today’s news into the wee hours of the morning. A much more student-friendly nighttime routine is to simply read a chapter or two from a book. This would preferably be something boring and dry and not required reading from your classes (you read enough of that wholesome learning stuff during the day). It’s way better than counting sheep.

Sleep, sleep, and sleep some more

You, oh graduate students, are enjoying some of the most flexible time of your lives, and this is when you should be able to sleep to your body’s content. We’ve already gone over how this is great for your brain, so there’s no need to feel guilty about it. Get a hammock, find a grassy knoll for an afternoon nap, treat yourself to some new sheets, or invest in a great mattress.

Make it a habit

During grad school you get to both reset your prior habits and plan for new ones in post-grad life. Why not include sleep in your short list of best practices?  If you set yourself up for optimal sleep and give yourself the luxury of being well-rested, maybe it won’t have to be so much of a feast and famine in the next stage. Great sleep habits have an incredible return on investment.

There you have it! Cheers to sleeping well.

Resources:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/neurophilosophy/2015/aug/22/how-to-optimise-your-brains-waste-disposal-system

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25682-sleep-may-help-memories-form-by-promoting-new-synapses#.U5XA-JSwLPZ

https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/study-physical-activity-impacts-overall-quality-sleep