Let sleeping students lie

Some do it a lot; others moan that they never get any at all. Whether you can go for hours each night or prefer to indulge yourself in the middle of the day – perhaps even in public places – everyone does it. Obviously, I’m talking about sleep here.

Starting up a discussion of sleeping habits is a sure-fire way to get scientists grinding their teeth and grumbling about something called ‘morning lectures’, and to get arts students comparing their preferred napping techniques.

I have one friend who adheres rigidly to a self-inflicted 10:30 bedtime, while another describes himself as “dark and mysterious” because of his nocturnal working hours, but is rarely seen out of bed before noon. Then there is that peculiar breed of Oxonian: the rower, who rises and shines in time for morning outings each day with an enthusiasm bordering on the grotesque.

There’s huge variation within the animal kingdom too. Rats can last three weeks without any shut-eye; whales and dolphins don’t sleep for a month after birth; horses and cows often sleep standing up, but can apparently only have dreams when lying down. Certain breeds of snails, meanwhile, can snooze for up to three years.

For humans, the most commonly cited figure is 6-9 hours. Turning to science for an answer, I learn that our sleep cycle is regulated by our ‘circadian clock’, which is based on the light/dark cycle. This is found in all living things. It even affects metabolic rates in fungi.

The exact amount of sleep needed varies from person to person, and in young adults the ‘clock’ is shown to be set a little later, which explains why students are often night owls. It is nevertheless important, and regular disruption seems to have serious negative health effects.

Studies have shown 11 days of staying awake can be enough to kill you, though the Guinness Book of World Records states 18 days as the longest period a human has gone without sleep.

For an activity that takes up around a third of your life, and is by all accounts pretty essential to our health and happiness, it’s surprising to find that many famous figures saw the idea of sleeping as a nuisance.

Along with Margaret Thatcher’s famous ability to get by on four hours a night, there are many others who view it as unimportant, inconvenient, or even as a weakness. Scientific big dog Thomas Edison said it was a waste of time. The ever-cheery Edgar Allen Poe described sleep as “those slices of death”, and even everyday phrases such as “you snooze, you lose” send out the message that time spent sleeping is time wasted.

Some students seem to share this philosophy, managing to cope with ridiculously little sleep. I’ve always regarded them with a kind of jealousy; the extra daytime they’re getting seems so unfair. Even the classic essay technique of the all-nighter has always proved too much for me. At every attempt, somehow I can’t seem to make it past 2am – before I know it, it’s morning and I awaken to a three-paragraph essay and a deadline in half an hour. As I prepare my excuses, the only consolation is that it can’t be healthy to miss out on sleep – surely?

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Speaking to a few Oxonians who have already been through the grimness of Finals, I heard of one History student who fell asleep during one of his exams, only waking up at the end. One Oxford law graduate told of an incident where a fellow student stayed awake all night before their first exam, felt that they did badly, and then walked for several miles still dressed in sub fusc before they were eventually found. Happily, this story ends on a positive note, as the student went on to complete Finals the following year and did very well. The graduates I spoke to added that most students start being more sensible about getting enough sleep as exams approach, with any problems being down to last-minute nerves.

What is perhaps more worrying is the huge number of students who turn to ‘sleep substitutes’. On the way to Prelims last year, one of my friends spent the journey necking Red Bull and another passed around a packet of Pro Plus, cheerily telling us how they’d spent the previous night unable to get to sleep. The long term effects of missing out on your forty winks can be scary, with sleep deprivation linked to heart disease, weakened immune systems and Alzheimer’s.

That’s all a long way off now, and many a student would still prioritise the elusive First over the humble recommended 8 hours sleep. A caffeine boost every so often isn’t likely to do much harm on its own, but the Great British Bedtime Report (apparently that’s a thing) suggests we underestimate the importance of sleep, and rest in general, with statistics showing almost half of Britons are kept awake by stress.

There’s no question that a lot of people take academia seriously here, arguably rightly so, but the idea that evading sleep entirely is the best way to achieve this seems bizarre. Myriad health risks aside, let’s not forget that your best ideas may come to you while sleeping; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were both based on the authors’ dreams. So was the Twilight series, come to that, but I’m still going to use this as justification.

Personally, I’m yet to work out if I’m a morning or night person (sometimes leading me to wonder if I’m even a person at all); but if nothing else, I am most definitely a nap person. It’s great preparation for a stint in the library – scientists say a 20-minute nap gives the same energy boost as 2 cups of coffee – and works equally well before a night out.

In Year 5, I was hugely jealous when my best friend moved abroad and told me French schools had mandatory afternoon naptime, and I can’t wait for my own siesta-filled year abroad in Italy. As Hemingway put it, “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.”

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If you’re finding yourself feeling constantly tired though, there may be a serious cause, with anaemia and diabetes being the most common. But before you venture into the world of online diagnosis – rather like an especially morbid Choose Your Own Adventure book with pregnancy and cancer as the only possible outcomes – take a look at the more obvious options. Essay all-nighters, the sticky-floored allure of Bridge or a crippling 4OD habit are far more likely culprits than river disease.

There’s a huge amount of money to be made from the lethargy of the population, so a lot of scientists focus on ‘studying sleep’, something which, incidentally, sounds like a great excuse for the next time I get rumbled in a mid-lecture nap.

Something excitingly called The Sleep Council seems to have collated much of this research. To my disappointment, I find I’ve just missed National Bed Month (March), a part of their campaign to spread awareness of how to sleep well. They also offer tips on choosing a bed, diet, and the intriguingly titled ‘sleeping tips’. This all seems like an awful lot of attention to something the majority of us take for granted.

A lot of their tips for a better night’s sleep probably sound fairly obvious; keep to a regular schedule, take time to relax before going to sleep, avoid food and caffeine after a certain time of day. How easily these things can be slotted into an average student’s timetable is another question.

Perhaps your college has generously bestowed on you a neighbour with a penchant for late-night guitar practice and a room with paper-thin walls, or perhaps you’ve found yourself in a relationship with a snorer or sleep-talker. But there’s still hope; some factors are within our control.

Working in bed during the day probably won’t help. If you’ve been shunted to a college room which forces you to be particularly inventive about furniture choices, this may be difficult, but it will be less easy to relax if you come to associate it with stress.

Whatever you do, definitely don’t sleep snuggled up with your books. Osmosis is not a legitimate revision method, and chunky textbooks and lever-arch files weren’t designed for use as a pillow. On the flipside, more recent recommendations also advise against getting ‘too much’ sleep, which can apparently carry health risks of its own.

The general gist of it all seems to be that if you manage to keep some sort of regular routine and aren’t going to bizarre extremes to fend off sleep, you’re probably doing alright. But enough of that, all this science is making me sleepy. Night night.