Waking from a good night of sleep is like a breath of fresh air. It brings relief from the physical, mental and emotional challenges of the prior day. Sufficient sleep leaves us feeling energized, motivated and revived. Most people can recall a day when they felt amazing after a good night of sleep, yet the demands of daily living often leave us trading a couple hours of sleep to meet our obligations or desires.
The benefits of sleep extend beyond the feeling of replenishment. Studies show that memory, mood, performance and creativity are all improved with adequate sleep. Prioritizing sleep as a basic need will most likely help to meet the demands of the day, while also improving overall well-being.
Research on sleep and memory shows that the process of integrating newly learned information within a framework of existing knowledge, called memory consolidation, is improved with sleep. When a period of learning is followed by a period of sleep, memory for newly learned information, and memory for “how to do things,” is improved. These benefits were found following a full night of sleep (eight hours), but also after naps of at least 60 minutes. While greater benefits appear to be gained after longer period of sleep, some studies have also found that memory retention is improved after a 15-minute nap. Optimal benefits for memory of “how to do things” occur when sleep takes place on the same day as the training.
In addition to memory benefits, alertness and performance is improved when those who work long shifts or night shifts take naps. In some studies, participants experienced up to two to three hours of refreshed alertness following short naps of 15-30 minutes.
Mood is also impacted by lack of sufficient sleep. Increased irritability, emotional reactivity, unhappiness, and/or anger occur when a person endures several days of insufficient sleep. Mood becomes consistently more negative as days of insufficient sleep progress, and likewise, as a person recovers from lack of sleep, their mood improves. In addition, one study found that mood rises and falls according to periods of alertness or drowsiness that occur throughout the day. These fluctuating states of alertness are triggered by the biological clock. In general, most people will experience a peak drowsy period in the middle of the night around 1-3 a.m., and then again around 1-3 p.m. Becoming familiar with your body’s natural fluctuations can help you to monitor and manage these mood fluctuations.
Sleep is also a great way to boost creativity. Dream sleep is a state of open-mindedness. When dreaming, the mind brings together novel combinations, relationships between things, or applications that might not occur in your waking state. In essence, while sleeping, your mind continues to work passively on the problems of the day. Play, relaxation, or a 10-15 break can also fulfill this stage in the creative process. These activities often follow a period of focused problem solving, whether it is an academic, work, social or personal challenge, and are essential to insight.
To maximize your sleep, take some time to observe when you feel most rested and how many hours of sleep you generally need to function optimally. The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep per night, with some needing a little more and others needing a little less. In addition, some people might reach a peak period of drowsiness earlier or later in the afternoon, depending on their own rhythms. Refrain from using alcohol or tobacco within three hours before bed and stop using caffeine at least six hours before bed as these substances typically interrupt the sleep cycle.
Assessing your own needs will help you establish some good times for getting to bed, waking up and napping if you feel drowsy during the day. Establishing a consistent sleep routine and incorporating a period of relaxation prior to sleep will also help you optimize sleep. Making sleep a priority will enhance your physical and creative energies and increase your overall well-being.
Sharleen O’Brien, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Director of UCSB Health & Wellness: http://wellness.sa.ucsb.edu/
This article is part of the Daily Nexus regular column “THE DOC IS IN” coordinated by UCSB Alcohol and Drug Program staff. Articles feature information and advice from UCSB Student Health clinicians and other health professionals on and around campus.