Sleeping it off: the importance of getting a good night's rest
Updated: Jan 30
Did you know that on average, Canadian high school students sleep 7.67 hours on nights during the school year despite recommendations of 7-10 hours? Additionally, did you know that over 33% of Canadian high school students are deemed to experience “excessive” levels of daytime sleepiness, confirmed by the Epworth test* (1)? Not only do a large number of Canadian students get a lack of sleep, but they report poorer sleep quality. In fact, in 2017, Statistics Canada found that 43% of men and 55% of women aged 18-64 had trouble falling asleep or staying in slumber.
Although scientists are not able to understand all the intricacies and functions of sleep, extensive evidence proves that sleep is an essential prerequisite for proper cognitive functioning. A lack of restful sleep can lead to mood changes, temporarily impaired mental ability, and fatigue - among other long-term health issues. For those reasons, getting seven to ten hours of sleep should be incorporated in everyone's lifestyles. This is even if sleeping for the recommended time proves difficult: even for those especially burdened by a heavy workload from their own schools or workplace.
We all know sleep as an important precursor to proper physical health, but what’s important to realize is that it also is also essential for good mental health. Recently, research has found that sleep disorders are common in individuals with acute mental health illnesses - such as depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. In the past, sleep disorders have been viewed as a symptom of having mental health issues. But in recent developments, studies indicated that poor sleep may be the cause of mental health issues - not the other way around.
The relationship between sleep and mental health - which has not yet been fully understood - continues to be a subject of research. However, what we do know is that poor sleep fosters negative emotions, irritability, and reduced physical and mental performance - all of which are strong contributors to poor mental health.
According to Shelley D. Hershner and Ronald D. Chervin, both Neurology Professors at Michigan State University, students in particular are most prone to less sleep due to internal behavioral and biological agents. First and foremost, young adults and adolescents are prone to ‘night owl’ behavior due to their inborn physiological inclinations, which are triggered by their “slower-than-usual” circadian rhythms. Mature adolescents are especially affected because their lower sleep-drive motivates them to develop unhealthier sleep schedules. Unbalanced sleep schedules typically result in one to three hours of sleep deficit on weekdays, which is then made up through more excessive sleep habits during weekends. Losing sleep, especially on school nights, can be problematic for students who wake up early to go to school.
Although physiology may be a large factor contributing to poor sleep, it is not the only cause. There are behavioral causes that contribute to decreased sleep, both in its quality and duration. Fortunately for us, the presence of behavioral agents mean there are possible solutions to decreased sleep. The following list contains some of the major behavioral catalysts that correct poor sleeping habits; as well as solutions we can take to prevent these poor habits from affecting us again.
Poor sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a concept that encourages users to participate in activities that improve quality of sleep, while avoiding those that reduce it.
One habit that leads to poor sleep hygiene is looking at phones or other devices in bed. Ideally, one should only be sleeping in bed. Using your bed as a setting for highly concentrated activities - such as watching entertainment and studying - makes the brain associate that particular behavior with your bedroom. This change leads to a decrease in your ability to fall asleep at night.
To solve this problem, one should ideally avoid activities that do not involve sleeping. Other ways to improve sleep hygiene include setting a regular sleep-wake schedule, as well as avoiding long naps or unnecessary sleep during the day.
Caffeine. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning is perfectly fine. The problem arises when caffeine is ingested during the evening or at night.
The effects of caffeine, such as elevated heart rate and mental alertness, can last for three to five hours; caffeine takes up to ten hours to completely exit the system. As such, drinking caffeine in the evening hours may cause increased alertness late during the night. Reducing caffeine intake for at least five hours before sleeping could improve both quality and duration of sleep.
Lack of exercise. Sleep and exercise have a strong, bidirectional relationship. In order to sleep, one needs to be sufficiently tired; and in order to be tired, individuals must exercise to exhaust themselves. And in turn, proper exercise requires the energy generated by proper sleep. Given that it is currently wintertime, staying indoors is - for many - a more attractive option. Despite the weather not being optimal for outdoor exercise, there are still ways a need to maintain a healthy exercise schedule. With the help of a yoga mat and some indoor sneakers, it’s still possible to achieve the weekly recommended 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. So make sure to stay strong!
*Epworth test: a self-administered questionnaire that is frequently used by doctors to assess patients’ levels of daytime sleepiness.