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canadian university report – sleep

Pulling all-nighters has long been a way of life for students. But lack of sleep can hinder the ability to attain and retain information.Getty Images/iStockphoto

For as long as universities have been in existence, students have been burning the midnight oil.

Pulling all-nighters to get that overdue paper done or some last-minute cramming for tomorrow morning's exam, going round the clock has long been a way of life.

But while nobody likes to lose out on sleep, for those whose goal is to attain, retain and utilize information in a meaningful way, it can be a self-defeating problem.

"Sleep has been shown to boost performance on mental tasks by at least 15 per cent," says Richard Horner, a professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Toronto, and a Canada Research Chair in sleep and respiratory neurobiology.

Dr. Horner says that a survey of 1,125 students revealed that only 30 per cent slept eight hours or more a night, 20 per cent pull an all-nighter a minimum of once a month and 35 per cent stay up to 3 a.m. or later at least once a week.

"Students care about learning and sleep is one of the most powerful things that people can do to improve their own brain function, learning ... and performing," he says.

Staying up late can essentially mimic the effects of jet lag, he says. Students are particularly affected because they are often glued to computer and smartphone screens that pump out the kind of blue light that can disrupt the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates tiredness.

So at 2 a.m. in Toronto, students might essentially be three hours behind on Vancouver time because they have been exposed to constant light and lost out on that powerful synchronizer, meaning their internal clock is running awry.

"So they're getting up at seven or eight o'clock in the morning for a nine o'clock class but your body thinks it's the middle of the night," he says. "That's what students tend to have a problem with."

One of the issues at play here is that students often watch a movie or surf the Internet as a way to relax and wind down after the day, says Reut Gruber, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University.

However, sleep plays a vital role in processing and filing information within the brain, much like saving something to a hard drive.

"Our save function, a portion of it at least, has been [occurring] during sleep," she says. "The newly acquired information is being transferred from one part of the brain to another and then there are some actual physiological changes in the brain that result in us acquiring, consolidating or saving this information."

When it comes to actually getting some shut eye, individual requirements can vary greatly from person to person.

Judith Davidson, an associate professor of psychology at Queen's University in Kingston who specializes in the study of sleep and sleep disorders, says that for 18 to 25 year olds, she would recommend seven to nine hours. That length of time is especially important to ensure that students get adequate rest during the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, as REM has been found to be important for memory consolidation, she says.

For those unable to get their heads down for seven to nine hours at night, for reasons ranging from academic to social, she says that it is okay to make up time with naps during the day.

"If they're in the afternoon and they're not interfering with your class, there's not a lot of evidence that that's harmful to your nighttime sleep," she says. "So if you want a nap, I'd say that's okay."

That kind of approach to rest and recuperation is the basis of a recently published book by British sleep coach Nick Littlehales, entitled Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps ... and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind.

Mr. Littlehales, who has worked with soccer teams such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, as well as Tour de France cyclists, emphasizes a polyphasic approach to sleep, which involves multiple periods of rest during the day.

Everyone is either a morning person or an evening person, he says, which refers to having an a.m. or a p.m. chronotype, and it is easy to determine which type anyone is.

"[Either] you feel at your best in the morning," he says, "Or you're one of those people who has got to be at university for nine o'clock and it takes about 30 minutes to get there so you're still in bed at 8:29."

The problem with being a p.m. chronotype at university is much happens in the morning, particularly exams, when students with that chronotype may not be at their best. For those who fit into this category, Mr. Littlehales says the best thing they can do is to get up earlier, get some daylight, eat and hydrate. Using the kind of lamp that simulates dawn breaking can help with that transition.

"Don't think staying in bed longer is going to help you," he says. "You've got to get up earlier."

The crux of Mr. Littlehales's sleeping technique is to break the night down into 90-minute cycles, which reflects the stages the human body goes through with deep sleep and REM sleep. If someone can get only three 90-minute cycles, he says, that is no problem, as they can get in some 20-minute power naps during the day, at their desk or elsewhere, to make it up.

Another important recommendation is for students to try and get up at the same time each day, no matter how much sleep they got the night before.

Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who is overseeing an online sleep study at, says that, even though getting up early after a night out will feel tough that day, it is important to try.

He adds that staying up late is somewhat of a vicious cycle because it knocks one's circadian rhythm, an internal clock that governs wake and sleep times, out of whack.

Effective sleep

Nick Littlehales's sleep techniques have been used by the likes of soccer stars David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, among others.

While a variety of research looks at different ways of achieving optimal sleep, Mr. Littlehales recommends the following six steps for students:

1. Tap circadian rhythms into your Internet browser and learn more about what that sun-up, sun-down process does to you as a human being.

2. Identify your chronotype (a.m. or p.m.). Get it right because if your roommate is the opposite, you should make some changes quickly.

3. Get sleep in recharge cycles, such as 90 minutes, 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 15 minutes. Mr. Littlehales recommends 30 to 35 90-minute recovery cycles a week, which averages out to about 6.5-7.5 hours of sleep a day.

4. In order to prepare your body for sleep, you need to literally and figuratively cool down. This means not just turning down the temperature and darkening the room, but also finding a way to relax, otherwise your sleep can suffer.

5. Overall stress levels can affect your sleep. Our pace of life and constant attentiveness to technology can mean we never get down time. Take the time to take a break, whether that means not checking your phone first thing in the morning, or if you are walking or waiting for a friend, look at the sky, look at the trees and take time for mental recovery.

6. You can sleep anywhere on anything. You do not need fantastic special mattresses or pillows. You were designed to sleep under a tree.

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