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It’s the start of a new semester—you’re probably already on top of planning your new class schedule, stocking up on textbooks, and restocking your study snack drawer. But what about your sleep?

More than one half of Canadian students polled in a recent Student Health 101 survey said that the long break over the holidays screwed up their sleep routine. Refreshing your sleep schedule after a break (where, let’s be real, you probably slept in a lot later than you’ll be able to once class starts again) is just as important to your academic success.

Establishing a good sleep schedule is simple, but also needs to be prioritized in order to make it work, according to Dr. Reut Gruber, Psychologist and Director, Attention Behaviour and Sleep Lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Quebec. She says things will happen when you decide to prioritize sleep.

Here’s how to get back on track—and why it’s so important to have a sleep schedule in the first place.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep—and, more importantly, consistent sleep—affects everything from your academic performance to your mood and overall health. Sticking to a sleep schedule (aka going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day) helps you stay on top of your game, says Dr. Gruber.

Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule can help you:

“The first thing affected by sleep deprivation is your ability to regulate emotions properly. It can be hard to be happy and not reactive and moody when you don’t have enough sleep,” says Dr. Gruber.

“The impact of sleep deprivation on academic performance is like a sprinter wearing ankle weights,” says Dr. Nate Watson, Director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is especially important for concentration, learning, and consolidation of memory, says Dr. Charles Samuels, Medical Director, Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Alberta, and President of the Canadian Sleep Society.

Not getting enough sleep ups your levels of cortisol—aka the stress hormone.

“Chronic short sleep,” defined as regularly getting less than seven hours, shuts down certain immune responses, according to the findings of a 2017 study performed among twins. In other words, keeping a consistent sleep schedule throughout the semester (ideally, where you’re getting at least seven hours of shut-eye every night) can help you fend off the latest virus spreading around campus.

“One of the most significant concerns in the university student population is student athletes who legitimately have limited time to meet their commitments to academics and their sport. This intrudes into their opportunity for sleep and recovery and affects both their school performance, motivation, and athletic performance,” says Dr. Samuels.

More importantly, setting up (and sticking to) a sleep schedule now can prevent you from having serious sleep problems later, says Dr. Kimberly Cote, Director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at Brock University in Ontario (e.g., having chronic trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and not feeling rested when you wake up in the morning)



How to get back into a sleep routine

“Ideally, good sleep habits and routines don’t vary according to time of year or holidays,” says Dr. Watson. But in reality, we know that can be tricky. Over the break, you may have taken advantage of not needing to set an alarm and slept in much later than normal. Without the presence of an early morning class, you likely went to bed much later than normal too. Some of you might have even switched time zones over the break.

So how do you get back on track? The first step, according to Dr. Gruber, is to “Be realistic and have a plan you can implement.” Make sleep a part of your daily schedule.

This takes a little planning. Let’s say you got used to going to bed at 1 a.m. over the break but need to be sleeping around 10 p.m. now. To shift your schedule, give yourself about a week where you go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night and get up 30 minutes earlier each morning. Even if you’re deep into the semester, you can work on this gradual change.

“If you know you have a term coming up with a lot of morning courses, then you might want to make sure that you don’t adjust your sleep time too much over the break,” Dr. Cote says.

Here’s what else you can do to help ease into your new sleep schedule:

1. Turn off your tech

You’ve probably heard that staring at a screen before bed can disrupt your sleep (the blue light from your phone or TV messes with your body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin), but it’s not the end of the world if you spent your school break binge-watching Netflix every night. (I mean, what are vacations for?)

Once school starts again, get back into the habit of going screen-free for a minimum of two hours before bed, Dr. Samuels suggets. To make your tech less tempting:

  • Turn off your Wi-Fi before you get ready for bed (just make sure your roomies or family members are OK with this).
  • Keep your phone plugged in on the opposite side of the room from your bed.
  • Switch your phone to airplane mode or use the “do not disturb” feature so you’re not interrupted by a middle-of-the-night buzz.
  • Take to pen and paper. “One of the best things I’ve tried is journaling before bed. I turn off my phone, get in bed, and write for half an hour. If you stick to it, the results are amazing,” says Maggie S., a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

2. Share your schedule with the people you live with

If you have an early class or are starting a new internship that will have you up at the crack of dawn, let the people in your house know that you’ll be going to bed earlier than usual. You don’t necessarily have to establish full-on quiet hours, but make sure they know if they’re having people over they’ll have to keep the noise level low. A helpful tip? Invest in some ear plugs and a good eye mask.

3. Stick to your new sleep schedule—even on the weekends

If you’re getting enough sleep during the week, you’re less likely to feel the urge to sleep the weekend away. A few extra Zs are fine, but drastically changing your sleep schedule on Saturdays and Sundays will disrupt your circadian clock, making it harder to get back to your sleep schedule during the week. 

“Ease back into a regular sleep schedule with relaxation and meditation techniques, while trying to maintain an exercise routine during the breaks,” says Justine G., a first-year student at Nova Scotia Community College.

“Lay down early, even if you’re not tired. Set morning alarms. Start this a week before school,” says Opalanna M., a third-year undergraduate student at Nipissing University in Ontario.

What if you never had a sleep schedule?

If you never quite mastered a sleep schedule you could stick to during the semester, now is the perfect time to start.

Someone holding phone that says "schedule"

Step 1: Figure out what time you need to get up, and work backwards to find a healthy bedtime. Most sleep experts agree that you need seven to nine hours for a full night’s rest. So, if you need to be up at 7 a.m. to make it to your first class, set a goal bedtime of 11 p.m.

“[I set] regular, non-flexible bedtimes and wake up times, [and try to get] as many obligatory things as possible done early to avoid having too many things to do right before bed,” says Brandon D, a third-year graduate student at the University of Western Ontario.

Step 2: Establish a relaxing routine. First, turn off your phone (or turn it on airplane mode for the night), and then take your time washing up and brushing your teeth. You might even try stretching or a deep breathing exercise to help you really get into the dream zone. If you’re still not feeling sleepy, read in bed—just make sure it’s not on your phone.

Some more student tips for winding down:

  • Play relaxing music or listen to a podcast or audio book.
  • Dim the lights.
  • Have chamomile tea.
  • Take a warm shower or bath.
  • Use a flameless candle with a relaxing scent.
  • Try meditation or breathing techniques.

Step 3: Turn your room into a sleep sanctuary. “Being in a dark, quiet room helps a lot,” says Erik G, a second-year undergraduate at Portland State University in Oregon, US. Keeping your room cool will also help you sleep better.

What if your sleep schedule gets messed up?

The reality is that your sleep schedule probably won’t be perfect—studying for exams and having a social life are bound to keep you up late sometimes. That’s all right.

“Everybody has a bad night of sleep from time to time, but if you stick with your healthy sleep habits, these few bumps in the road will have no real consequences,” Dr. Watson says.

If a cram session keeps you up late, “a nap would be a good idea that day,” says Dr. Cote. Just keep it to 20 minutes. A power nap will help you feel refreshed, but anything longer might interfere with your ability to fall asleep that night, she adds.

To keep your sleep from getting even more messed up, avoid these common sleep-quality reducers:

  • Say no to stimulants. You might fall asleep faster after drinking alcohol, but your sleep will be shallower and you’re likely to wake earlier. Also, try to avoid caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Many people find that exercising close to bedtime makes it more difficult to fall asleep, so plan your fitness routine for earlier in the day.
  • Try to avoid using your bed to study or for entertainment like watching a movie. “Your bed should be used for sleep rather than screen or party time,” says Dr. Gruber.

Finally, if you do have difficulty sleeping and don’t feel rested on a regular basis, get evaluated by a sleep expert. Dr. Gruber says that sleep disorders are being missed and there’s help available. Her last bit of advice: “Don’t do FitBit diagnoses”—while you can use apps to track yourself, make sure to speak with your doctor if you have concerns.

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Article sources

Kimberly Cote, PhD, Director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at Brock University, and member of the Canadian Sleep Society, Ontario.

Reut Gruber, PhD, Psychologist and Director, Attention Behaviour and Sleep Lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, Quebec.

Charles Samuels MD, CCFP, DABSM, Medical Director, Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta, and President of the Canadian Sleep Society.

Nate Watson, MD, Director of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center.

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Phillips, A. J., Clerx, W. M., O’Brien, C. S., Sano, A., et al. (2017). Irregular sleep/wake patterns are associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing. Scientific Reports7(1), 3216.

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Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., & Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141(11), 846–850. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15583226 

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