Repaying your sleep debt

Short, regulated naps can help you recharge your batteries, sleep expert says

Napping can be beneficial if kept to 30 minutes or less, said Susan Driver, psychology professor.
Napping can be beneficial if kept to 30 minutes or less, said Susan Driver, psychology professor.

University students having trouble getting enough shut-eye may benefit from the wisdom of a toddler’s sleeping patterns: take regular naps.

Meghan Perrott, Artsci ’08, said she naps to cope with late nights and early mornings.

“[I nap] probably every school day. On weekends, I nap once in a while, but not as often.”

Perrott said taking a nap is the only way to stay concentrated when she has a long night of studying ahead of her. If her schedule doesn’t allow for her usual mid-afternoon snooze, she makes sure she gets it in if it’s crunch time.

“If I get home [late] and I have to study, then I’ll have a quick nap. It’ll probably be shorter than normal.”

Perrott said she ensures that when she naps, she sets and alarm and typically sleeps for less than an hour.

The most basic way to understand the impact of sleep on daily functions is to consider the 24-hour clock your body runs on—also known as its circadian cycle.

Your circadian cycle says you should be awake when it’s light out, and be resting once the sun goes down. This cycle can’t be reversed and hits a low point between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, it’s within that late night window that you probably regret your procrastination the most. Exactly 180 degrees from that time is the second low point, which occurs between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and is the motive behind “siesta” times in warmer-climate countries.

Sleep cycles are broken down into two phases that alternative as you rest—the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) period and the non-REM period. The cycle for this transition lasts about 90 minutes, with the deepest sleep occurring in the first two cycles.

Sleep patterns intrigue Helen Driver, who, alongside Judith Davidson, teaches a course on the psychology of sleep at Queen’s. “My experience with students is that they’re all running with a light sleep debt where they’re not getting as much sleep as they should,” Driver said.

Driver said she recognizes that time for sleep is restricted. She recommends students fit naps into their schedules.

“Keep it at 30 minutes or less, because if you go for a longer time, you need to allow yourself time to get into a deep sleep and then come into your REM cycle,” she said.

If your cat-nap turns into two hours of shut-eye, you wake up as your body is going through its deepest sleep and will feel more tired than you did before you hit the pillow. Napping is harmless as long as it’s regulated, Driver said.

Driver said it’s important to set an alarm, because longer naps not only leave your drowsier but will also impact your nighttime sleep patterns.

“It will take you longer to sleep at night which is how a vicious cycle can start. So you can see how people set themselves up for insomnia because they have bad routines,” she said, warning that sleep disorders can result from poor bedtime habits.

Driver said students should try to change their attitudes toward sleep.

“You have to adopt the attitude that sleep time is quality time, and not do other things at the expense of sleep if you know that you aren’t getting an adequate amount,” she said.

That can mean adjusting to your daily routine, including eating healthier, exercising more and creating a suitable environment for a solid night’s rest. Distractions such as bright lights or loud noises in the room will hinder your rest, Driver said.

You also need to ensure you’re not using your bed for activities other than sleep and sex. Anything else will detract from associating your bed with getting rest.

The HCDS “sleep wall” lists drinking warm milk, listening to relaxing music and doing yoga before bed as tips for getting enough sleep. Staying away from caffeine after dinnertime is also conducive to a good sleep.

Perhaps most importantly for students, HCDS recommends putting the books away at least an hour before bedtime in order to give your brain time to slow down.

The health risks associated with sleep deprivation go beyond disorders.

“When we talk about being burnt out, it does reach that phase [for some],” Driver said, adding that other consequences of accumulated sleep debt can include lessened memory consolidation, slower reaction times and inability to concentrate.

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