How to survive at university – according to science


As new students take their first steps into Freshers’ Week this year, they may find themselves want­ing for many things. There will be forgotten essentials, like phone chargers and blankets, the unwel­come surprise of waking up to find there is no clean underwear, and, most distinctly, a huge lack of time.

With an enormous variety of things to do at university, students are often told they can “sleep, study or socialise, but only choose two”. Consequently, a lot of people will find themselves compromis­ing on sleep to fit everything in, but if you really want to do it all, what is the best way forward?

How to sleep less

There is mixed advice available online when it comes to sleeping less. Some articles recommend that people “train” their body by reducing the time spent in bed by a small amount each night. Even these, however, warn about the dangers of sleep deprivation, and the majority of research argues that you cannot force yourself to sleep less.

Only the rare and fortunate “sleepless elite,” in possession of the hDEC2 gene, can get away with as little as six hours a night. In­stead, there is plenty of guidance on how to make the most of the time spent sleeping. (It is unfortunate that most of it reads like a set of never-followed New Year’s resolu­tions.)

Suggestions include: cutting down on alcohol, on caffeine and on nicotine consumption; exercis­ing regularly, but not in the even­ing; and forming a night-time ritual of meditating before bed. Additionally, banning all screen use one to two hours before bedtime is said to be beneficial.

For the disorganised student, however, there are alternatives to treating life like a yoga retreat. It might not be the dream answer, but for the best quality sleep, ad­vice is to wake up at the same time every day, then nap. As needing a lie-in is itself a sign of sleep dep­rivation: if you can go without it, it’s likely to be better for you in the long term.

Alternatively, banking sleep in advance by going to bed a couple of hours earlier for a week has been shown to work for short periods of time, which may be more effective when deadlines start hitting.

In the short term, sleep dep­rivation produces symptoms fa­miliar to anyone who’s had a bad night, including reduced concen­tration, confusion, and a short temper. These effects certainly aren’t ideal for anyone with a 9am lecture or an important as­sessment the next day.

Less well known, though, is the negative impact on both short- and long-term memory, as well as the adverse effects on problem-solving and decision-making abilities. This is because a lack of sleep changes the level of activity in multiple parts of the brain, including the amyg­dala, the hippocampus, and the frontal and parietal lobes.

In a trial with mice, parts of the brain were found to liter­ally eat themselves after a few bad nights, breaking down pre­formed connections. Long-term effects, meanwhile, can be sur­prisingly severe and include an increased risk of diabetes, obe­sity, and high blood pressure.

Even for the currently unini­tiated, napping is likely to be­come a necessary compromise in order to get to rowing or 9am lectures. Given that most students study and sleep in the same room, it can be tempting to switch one out for the other.

Scientifically, napping can also be the better option, especially to avoid the jetlag-like effects of an out of sync sleep schedule. Many people, however, discover that they feel worse after a nap due to the effects of sleep inertia – that is, “the period of impaired per­formance and grogginess experi­enced after waking”.

Thankfully, the effects of sleep inertia can be minimised, or even avoided altogether.

Studies suggest that caffeine consumption can help to reduce grogginess, but, perhaps coun­terintuitively, it is most effective when administered before sleep.

Additionally, timing naps care­fully can help to avoid waking during deep sleep – the period during which sleep inertia will be at its worst. Aiming for a nap length of either 20 or 90 minutes will give the best results, whereas waking anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes in will make it much harder to get out of bed.

It may be frustrating to learn that there is no easy long-term way to compromise on sleep. Without it, however, it would be difficult to do anything at all. Remember that, and you can go through university without feeling that you’ve wasted a second.

Photograph: Pixabay

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