Researcher has tips for sleep-deprived students

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Darcy Ropchan — The Gateway (University Of Alberta)

(Photo illustration by Lara Kmech/The Gateway)
(Photo illustration by Lara Kmech/The Gateway)

When it comes to getting a good night’s rest, there can be a lot to lose sleep over — particularly for students. In the age of computers and tablets, which produce melatonin-suppressing blue light, getting enough beauty sleep can often be a tiresome endeavour.

Cary Brown, an associate professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, said when it comes to getting the right amount of sleep, society and universities run on a counterproductive model.

“We live in a society that’s not set up for sleeping,” Brown said.

“University is set up that way. In the daytime, we put you in dim lecture halls with the lights turned out and tell you to look at a PowerPoint way off in the distance. When the lights are out your body produces melatonin to make you sleepy. Then you go home after, working on your computers and tablets, and you’re flooded with blue light so you’re wide awake.”

Brown explained it would be impossible for any university student to avoid the sleep-related stresses of post-secondary education, but she said making small, simple changes in everyday life can pay off. Switching to decaffeinated coffee instead of caffeinated can help get students to sleep faster. So can acquiring blue light dimming software for computers or tablets. It filters out the blue light, so even if students are in for a late night of paper-writing in front of their computers, it won’t keep them as awake at night.

Napping may seem like a worthy alternative for those who can’t commit to a full night of sleep, but Brown warned that timing afternoon or evening naps just right is the key to getting proper rest.

“Sleep occurs in five stages. It’s a cycle and you have to go through all the stages. You start off in a light sleep and then you go down into a very, very deep sleep where it’s hard to wake people up, but then they start to come up from that and you go into a light sleep again,” Brown explained.

“To go through a cycle takes about 90 minutes, so if you have a short nap, like 15 minutes, it’s fine because you’re not interfering with anything — you’re in the early stages of your sleep cycle. If you have an hour-long nap and you need an alarm to wake you up, it startles you out of deep sleep so that stress hormones are created in your body and it counteracts the benefits of having a nap. If you’re going to have a nap, either 15 minutes or the whole 90 minutes.”

One of the problems with getting a good sleep is actually falling asleep in the first place, she said. For those with racing minds, Brown advised students focus on one thing at a time in order to rest. Forcing themselves to listen and focus on an audio book is a great way to make their eyes feel heavy, she said. Because they’re intently focused on the book, they don’t have time to worry about not falling asleep — which makes them fall asleep. When faced with a tough test in the morning, Brown advised that students may want to reconsider pulling an all-night cramming session.

“All kinds of studies show that students who stay up late trying to cram for exams do worse than students who just go to bed. When you sleep, your mind has time to process all the new information that came in during the day and if you don’t process it, it doesn’t get to go into your memory — it just drifts away.”

And that’s worth crying to sleep over.


Emily is in her fourth year of Political Science. She loves studying and academics which follows into her research work. She's a stern black coffee drinker and is a proud Acadienne. When she's not working or doing school work, you can find Emily listening to 70s music on vinyl and watching Parks and Recreation. If you ask her about parliamentary institutions, she won't stop talking.