How does sleep impact your learning?


Burning the midnight oil is a big part of student and working life. Under the stress of deadlines and examinations, many often pull all-nighters to stay on top of things. Sleep might seem like a small price to pay when you’re rushing through your workload, but sacrificing a good night’s sleep could have a strong impact on your learning abilities.

Sleep deprivation mainly leads to reduced memory skills, along with other things that can disadvantage your learning, such as lower levels of concentration, poor mental health and even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in the long term.

How sleep impacts learning 1Photo: Active Health

Reduced memory skills

While learning different things requires various cognitive functions, memory consolidation is an essential function across the board. Memory consolidation is sleep-dependent, which means it affects recall, where the brain accesses and utilises stored information, often by bringing memories to mind. Poor sleep affects the brain’s ability to retain factual information and procedural memories, which inhibits the learning of both academic subjects and non-academic skill. This can impact our declarative memory and our procedural memory. Declarative memory can be considered as the consciously accessible memories of fact-based information. Non-declarative memory is regarded as non-conscious and includes procedural memory – such as the learning of actions, habits and skills.

Getting insufficient sleep after a long day at school is definitely not the smartest way to get good grades. While you could repay the “sleep debt” to your body on other days, the most critical period for your memory is the sleeping hours that immediately follows a lesson. If you do not sleep well, your brain will not be able to properly acquire, consolidate and retain the information gained during that lesson, which renders all your late-night mugging unproductive. You might be able to cram in a few more hours of work, but catching some quality sleep would be more beneficial for the learning process.

How sleep impacts learning 2Photo: Active Health

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Sleep has 4 stages: One rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage and the other three forming the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages, each of which serves a different critical function, so all stages are important.

Motor learning is influenced by stage 2 of NREM sleep, while visual learning depends on the amount and timing of both deep slow-wave sleep and REM sleep. REM sleep is particularly critical for acquiring complex and emotionally charged information, and for enhancing procedural memory, which helps individuals remember how to perform tasks. Disruptions to the sleep cycle can therefore affect learning and memory consolidation, leading to reduced cognitive performance.

During our sleep, we cycle through the 4 stages naturally, so we cannot pick and choose which portion of sleep we want to enter. The best way to reap the maximum (and all of the) benefits of sleep is to improve the overall sleep quality.

It can be easy for youngsters to think of sleep as something that is eating into their time, but your brain actually works on your behalf as you sleep. It was found by the National Institute on Aging that memory retention is sleep-dependent in healthy young adults. Without sleep, the full impact of studying cannot be felt. However, older adults do not have the same overnight sleep benefit, making it harder for them to learn new things. This is because sleep quality naturally worsens as you age, which contributes to a deterioration in long-term memory.

Lower levels of concentration

The brain, like the rest of the body, needs rest to function fully. It goes without saying that sleep deprivation leads to sleepiness, which takes a toll on your mind. This manifests in lower levels of alertness and concentration, making it difficult to pay full attention to absorb new information. It is found that sleeping before learning is necessary to form the initial foundation of memories, as it prepares the brain to absorb new information and lay the structure for new memory traces. Decreased focus also results in a slower thought process, impeding the ability to concentrate on tasks that involve complex and logical reasoning, increasing the likelihood of confusion. Not to mention that the lower levels of concentration could have you feeling extremely distracted. The bottom line is, skipping sleep will do you no favours when getting into the headspace for learning.

How sleep impacts learning 3Photo: Active Health

Poor mental health

Besides impairing the cognitive processes required for efficient learning, sleep deprivation also has a detrimental impact on your mood and mental health. This is exhibited in behavioural habits that are not conducive for learning. The lack of proper sleep could leave you feeling irritable, angry and lessens your ability to cope with stress. This makes you more prone to emotional outbursts, giving up and an overall negative attitude towards the task at hand.

According to National Sleep Foundation, 73% of adolescents who feel unhappy do not have enough sleep at night. Sleep deprivation results in a more depressed mood in adolescents, causing those who fall into that category to be more likely to report slipping grades. Not developing healthy sleep habits could also lead to many sleep-disruptive illnesses such as insomnia, which are directly linked to depression and anxiety.

Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Your immediate concern could be picking up new skills now, but sleep deprivation could have a far more serious impact on your cognitive abilities and even increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease down the road. A study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that sleep helps to clear beta-amyloid (aka the Alzheimer protein) from the brain. Sleep deprivation elevates levels of beta-amyloid in your brain by about 5% after losing a night of sleep. When accumulated over the years, the protein could damage vulnerable brain regions contributing to impaired brain function – namely the thalamus and hippocampus. Individuals who show an elevation in this protein levels due to sleep deprivation also tend to experience deteriorated mood, as the thalamus and hippocampus, which are involved in mood regulation, can be adversely affected. As significant a role as sleep plays in memory skills, memory problems are one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The link also goes both ways, as those with elevated beta-amyloid often have troubles sleeping.

It is established that sleep has an extremely positive relationship with learning, but how can you get better sleep amidst your busy schedule? Here are some tips and tricks for improving your sleep quality.

How sleep impacts learning 4Photo: Active Health

Setting a regular bedtime

The circadian rhythm, or nightly rhythm, is an internal body clock that repeats every 24 hours. It regulates when you sleep and when you wake. Hard-wiring a rhythmic environment in your body is necessary for optimum cognitive performance and function. Good sleep habits, such as having a regular bedtime, is recommended to be cultivated from young as learning is a life-long journey. While sleep deprivation impacts long-term cognitive abilities, sleep is especially beneficial for children and their learning. Instilling a regular bedtime in kids would ensure that they get sufficient shut-eye for their developing brains. Ingraining good sleep habits in children would allow them to follow through easily to adulthood, making them more aware of these habits even when it gets harder to stick to them.

Relaxing your brain

Falling asleep right after studying or working can be difficult due to the residual stress. Your mind could still be seeking out fresh stimulation after the constant stimulation of learning. Using your phone or checking social media could make it even harder for you to fall asleep as you are loading your brain with new information as you scroll. The blue light emissions from your screens can also delay the release of melatonin – the sleep-inducing hormone. Try taking a soothing warm shower or meditating right before bed to unwind for quality sleep.

Afternoon naps

Daytime naps provide a robust benefit to both visual and motor skills development. In the case of visual skills learning, naps are also capable of restoring performance deterioration caused by repeated practices across the day. The effects of sleep are stronger in young children because their brains are still developing and they have more slow-wave sleep, which makes it easy for them to learn new things quickly. Not only does sleep help kids to recall information, it also changes the way they access that information. The brain becomes more flexible in retrieving memories by extracting only the important gist of it.

Taking short naps, approximately 20 minutes in duration, allows you to enter Stage 2 sleep, which is beneficial for recharging and enhancing motor and visual learning.  Ideally, naps should be kept short to 20 to 30 minutes to avoid potential sleep inertia. Sleep inertia can leave you feeling groggy and disoriented for the rest of the day. Avoid napping too late in the day as it can disrupt your sleep at night and throw off your overall sleep pattern.

While naps can give you that extra boost for maximum productivity throughout the day, getting sufficient quality sleep by practising good sleeping habits comes first. Relying on naps to get you through the day is a no-no. If you find yourself constantly catching 'zzzs' in the middle of the day due to sheer exhaustion, it could be a signal of bigger sleep problems like insomnia.

How sleep impacts learning 5Photo: Active Health

Getting enough sleep is crucial for optimising the learning process and more importantly, for both your short-term and long-term health. 

The hours of sleep recommended as according to the revised Singapore Physical Activity Guidelines (SPAG) for toddlers of ages 1-2 years old is 11-14 hours, pre-schoolers of ages 3-4 years old is 10-13 hours of sleep and of ages 5-6 years old is 9-13 hours of sleep. For primary school children of ages 7-13 years old is 9-12 hours of sleep and secondary school children of ages 14-17 years old is 8-10 hours of sleep. If you’re having trouble tossing and turning at night, speak to our coaches at the Active Health Lab to address your sleeping woes.

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Topics: Sleep, Rest Better