Sunday, May 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Much Ado About Sleeping

The end of summer feels like the end of a dream. Lie-ins morph into morning lectures; you never seem to win the daily battle with your alarm clock; and all you really want is to finish that dream about the llama and the– never mind… Sometimes, it seems that getting a good nights’ sleep (and then waking up again) is harder than getting your actual degree. 

You’re likely aware that there are different stages of sleep which affect how you’ll feel when you wake up. However, it’s difficult to get the timing just right. To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘the course of true rest never did run smooth’. If we break it down, though, you might just figure out how to wake up feeling fresh as a daisy and ready for all of those 9AMs…

The first step to a solid sleep is the non-REM (REM = Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is made up of three different stages.  

  • Stage 1 is hitting the hay — the actual act of being asleep, when everything (including your brain waves) slows down. 
  • Then comes Stage 2, the short period of light sleep that occurs before deep sleep. Your bodily functions continue slowing, all eye movement stops, and your temperature drops. If you were to have an EEG, you’d see your brain wave activity slowing even further, only to be interrupted by short bursts of activity known as ‘sleep spindles’. According to current research, sleep spindles consolidate long-term memory and make for effective sensory processing. Most importantly though, stage 2 NREM is the most recurring phase in our sleep.
  • Next is Stage 3, the deep sleep in which your body truly rests. Taking place during the first half of your night in slightly longer periods, this is when your brain waves are at their trough, and your heartbeat and breathing are their slowest. In other words, get woken up in Stage 3, then your flatmates better prepare for the zombie apocalypse…

Now, Stage 4 is where things get really interesting. REM sleep kicks in about 90min after falling asleep for the average student. As the name suggests, your eyes move quite fast during this stage, shielded by your eyelids. Your breathing and heart rate rise, and your brain activity comes close to what it’s like when you’re awake. As your dreams really kick in, your limbs become temporarily paralysed to prevent you from properly acting out what you’re dreaming — you can thank your gamma-aminobutyric acid and glycine neurotransmitters for that. But REM sleep isn’t just for dreaming, it’s incredibly important for memory consolidation: your brain will review everything that happened during the day and pick out what needs to be committed to memory. 

So what happens with all these stages? Typically, you cycle through all of them a couple of times before your deathtone, sorry, ringtone, drags you out of your reverie. The longer you sleep, the longer your REM periods become until they eventually wake you up. So how should you time your wake-up correctly?

This is the tricky bit, because there’s no right answer.

You might have heard that if you wake up during the middle of a sleep cycle (somewhere in between stages 1-4), you’ll wake up exhausted. This is true. So, if you wake up at the end of a full sleep cycle during REM, you should wake up relatively chirpily — even if you’ve only slept a couple of hours.

Sounds ideal, right? Wrong, sorry. Even if a cycle is complete, there’s a reason your body wants to repeat it.

The average student requires at least 4-6 sleep cycles a night. Why? It’s all down to the need for memory consolidation. Each sleep stage is like a free, subconscious revision session. Your brain does the work for you whilst you slumber away. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, so why miss out? 

So, now we have a more solid answer: sleep early, wake up refreshed.

Sorry, I just had to pause for laughter… I can’t remember the last time I went to bed before midnight, and I’m sure you feel the same way. Let’s try these two options instead:

Option 1: Wake up sleepy but find motivation to get up with the tempting thought of a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea or even an early morning jog.

Option 2: Make the best of the sleep you can get. 

Like plants, there are some conditions which aid us in our quest for a good sleep, such as a comfy bed, a dark room, reducing screen time, skipping the midnight snack and getting a good amount of exercise in, but there is one thing that is ruining your chance of a good sleep and that is: SNOOZING YOUR ALARM, and don’t even think about setting several alarms instead. Every time you snooze, you interrupt your sleep cycle right as it’s trying to start, so you’re simply sabotaging your own sleep cycle. 

The best solution is still to squeeze in as many sleep cycles in as possible. But, if you still need a TL;DR: go to bed an hour earlier than you planned, and for the love of William Shakespeare, stop pressing snooze.

Photo credits: Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash