The why to zzz of getting a good night’s sleep

How to get the shuteye you need
Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, it’s important to get the best night’s sleep you can. But how? Sleep expert Dr Yu Sun Bin shares some wise advice to guarantee you’ll wake up on the right side of the bed.

Not going to lie, getting a full night of quality sleep is almost a luxury sometimes as a student. Between pulling through an all-nighter to hot-bath-no-electronic level of discipline, striking a healthy sleep pattern that is sustainable requires hard work.

As assignments pile up, exams loom over, and life gets busier, it’s easy to dismiss sleep as the least important of them all. But if you look at the stats, we spend on average a third of our lifetime sleeping, simply because we need it to survive. That’s a good chunk of time our human bodies have carved out for us so we can function and perform! Let’s use it wisely.

Just like study and work, sleep requires discipline too. Here, our sleep expert Dr Yu Sun Bin shares some tips and practical strategies so you can max out your sleep time for maximum performance.

gif of a baby falling asleep on the sofa

So how much sleep do I really need?

Between 7 to 9 hours a night is recommended for young adults aged between 18 to 25 years old. However it’s important to keep in mind that people can be very different: some function very well with 6 hours, whilst others need 10-11 hours. All of these durations are appropriate for this age group.

Quality over quantity

Our research suggests that it’s more important to have sleep of good quality than spending a longer time in bed. If you only sleep 6 or 7 hours a night, that’s fine if your sleep is of good quality. What’s good quality? This is entirely subjective: if you feel refreshed and do not feel sleepy during the day!

Tips for good sleep

Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, including on the weekends. This may sound like boring – and usually unwanted – advice but it works, because it capitalises on regular cycle of the body clock which determines when we naturally want to sleep and be awake.

Avoid electronic screens in the 2-3 hours before bed. Phones, laptops, and tablet computers emit light that fools the body clock into thinking it is daytime and delays the time at which you naturally feel sleepy. This advice is particularly important for people who are night owls, who tend to stay up late. 

Getting up early without feeling groggy

Sleep cycles are roughly 90 minutes long so if you need to get up early, set your alarm for multiples of 90 minutes (1.5 hours) from when you go to bed. If you go to bed at midnight, try setting your alarm for 6am, 7:30am, or 9am. Add in an extra 5-15 minutes to take into account the time it takes you to fall asleep.

If you’re not naturally a morning person, it could be because you’re more sensitive to light than average. Leave the curtains/blinds open to let sunlight in and give a strong prod to your body clock that is it time to wake up.

If your alarm has got you up but you are feeling groggy, go outdoors and get some sun immediately! Sunlight, even on a cloudy day, is much brighter than indoor lighting and this will send a strong signal to your body clock that it is time to be awake and alert. It will also help you feel sleepy and go to bed on time at night.

In a modern society where we have 24-hour access to artificial lighting and access to food, circadian health is the idea that when we sleep, move, and eat is as important as the quality of our sleep, how much exercise we do, and what we eat.
Dr Yu Sun Bin

Light and circadian health

Daylight and darkness are cues from the environment that tell the body clock when to prepare to be awake and when to prepare to sleep. In fact, the body clock and circadian rhythms are part of every system in the body and they make sure that all the biological processes in the body are synchronised, like musicians in an orchestra. This is why we have such a terrible time with jetlag or working night shift, when the body clock and circadian rhythms are out of sync with the cycle of day and night.

Tips for breaking an unhealthy sleep cycle

Sleep schedules can be difficult because shift work and uni deadlines can get in the way! If you are not used to going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time every day, then it is a good habit to try and practice. Work slowly towards being more regular. Give yourself a pat on the back if you are able to go to bed sometimes at 11pm and sometimes at midnight. If you work towards consistently going to bed at the same time every night, you will naturally wake up at the same time every day. 

Schedule your bedtime – work backwards from when you need to wake up most days and how long you personally want to sleep. 

Practice good time management: take 20 minutes to plan the week ahead, and take 5 minutes each morning to review and update that schedule. Be realistic with how much you can do - be mindful that most tasks take longer than you expect and budget twice as much time you think you’ll need.

I just can’t fall asleep, what do I do?

Up to 40% of students say they frequently lie in bed thinking and worrying, instead of falling asleep. 

If you find yourself worrying,

  1. Draw your attention from the worries by focusing on something else. This could involve progressive relaxation strategies where you focus on tensing and then relaxing each muscle all the way from your feet to your face, or the old school method of counting sheep, or concentrating on your breathing.
  2. Take a mindful approach: take a step back and watch and be aware of your thoughts, but don’t get caught up in the thought-stream. Mindfulness requires practice.
  3. Take a brain dump: get out of bed and write down all your worries with and pen and paper and put them away before getting back into bed. 

Where can I learn more?

Dr Bin runs an online unit of study called Health Challenges: Sleep & Circadian Rhythms. All students and staff are welcome to self-enrol in OLET1509 in Canvas. This is a 0-credit point unit of study that introduces how sleep and circadian rhythms work. Students can also take OLET1510, a 2-credit point unit which develops on the concepts introduced in OLET1509 and goes into more detail about jetlag, shift work, insomnia, and other sleep and circadian disorders. 

Updated 20 October 2021

4 November 2020

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