The importance of sleep

The quality of your sleep directly affects the quality of your waking life, including your mental sharpness, productivity, emotional balance, creativity and physical vitality.

Sleep is food for the brain. During sleep, important body functions and brain activity occur. Skipping sleep can be harmful. Even minimal sleep loss takes a toll on your mood, energy, and ability to handle stress.

Russell Foster is a circadian neuroscientist. He studies the sleep cycles of the brain and shares three popular theories about why we sleep, busts some myths about how much sleep we need at different ages—and hints at some bold new uses of sleep as a predictor of mental health.


Understanding your sleep cycle

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes wake up feeling groggy even when you’ve had enough sleep? One reason could be that you’ve woken up in the middle of a deep sleep (Stage 4).

Waking up mid (bottom) cycle leaves you feeling tired and disorientated, but waking up at the top of a cycle leaves you feeling refreshed and alert.


As a teenager you need a minimum of nine hours sleep a night. However, if you’re in Year 12 and intend to get up early to study during exams then you should understand the sleep cycle and work it to your advantage.

The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes. During a typical night you will go through 4 to 5 cycles a night. Try setting a wake-up time that’s a multiple of 90 minutes, the length of the average sleep cycle. For example, if you go to bed at 9.45 p.m., set your alarm for 5:30 a.m., instead of 6:00 or 6:30. (This gives you a total of 7 ½ hours of sleep + 15 minutes for falling asleep.) You may feel more refreshed at 5:30 than with another 30 to 60 minutes of sleep because you’re getting up at the end of a sleep cycle when your body and brain are already close to being awake.

We don’t advocate that you survive on less sleep during exams as lack of sleep is detrimental to good health. But neither can we ignore the fact that many of you will get up early to study. It’s a matter of finding a healthy balance and using your sleep cycle to wake up at an optimum time when you’re more alert.

There are many free apps available that calculate the optimum times for sleep and rising. When choosing an app, check to see if it adds in an additional 15 minutes for falling asleep.

Managing your study space

Trying to study is difficult when you’re surrounded by clutter, which is why a clean room is important.

If exams are looming large and your bedroom looks like a battlefield then now’s not the time to sort through the mess. Let’s be honest: it’s not a priority. So what’s the next best solution?

The best thing to do is bag or box up the mess and move it into the garage until exams are over. Once you’ve done that flip and rotate your mattress (see below), change your sheets, and vacuum. You should be able to knock this job over in one hour max.

The trick is not to waste time thinking about the things you’re bagging/boxing. Remember: you’re not giving your stuff away but moving it temporarily out of your room until after exams. If it’s not directly related to study or something you’ll use during exams, then move it out.

The next step is to flip and rotate your mattress. Over time a mattress follows the shape of your body and will suffer from compression in the area where you sleep. The benefit of a flip and rotate, say every six months, allows for the compressed mattress to reshape and for you to avoid any discomfort and back ache. You’ll get a better night’s sleep and your body with thank you for it.

What if your room is reasonably tidy but just suffers from coffee cup mutation? It’s the same deal: you still need to tidy up.

Coffee cups tend to multiply when you’re in the zone and studying long hours. They mysteriously find their way into dirty clothes baskets, under beds and on bookshelves. And all the while the leftover sludge and mould at the bottom of the cup is taking on a life form of its own.

Know that when you leave school many great things await you. But discovering penicillin won’t be one of them. A canny Scott, a deft Englishman and proud Aussie have already beaten you to it. So scoop up the cups and take them back to the kitchen as the Nobel Prize has already been awarded. You may also want to remove any other growth that’s harboring at the bottom of your gym bag or backpack.

Buy eye drops

Your eyes will be working overtime during exams so you need to look after them. We’re not in the business of selling you things or getting you to spend money when you don’t need to. However, eye drops are a must during exam time. Your eyes won’t get the opportunity to rest other than when you’re asleep, which puts them under a lot of pressure with all the reading you’re doing.

The constant swapping between computer screens and books doesn’t do them a lot of good either. Neither does reading in poor light. So treat them to a mini spa with a couple of drops when they’re feeling itchy and tired.

If you wear glasses then give them a wash in warm soapy water to get rid of the built up grime. If your polishing cloth is looking a bit sad then ask your local optometrist for a free one.

For those of you who wear contacts, make sure you’re well stocked with solution. And don’t fall asleep with them in!

Get wormed!

It’s an icky subject that no one wants to talk about (but we will). Here’s the lowdown on worms: they’re called intestinal parasites and they can affect your sleep, mood and appetite. They are also highly contagious; however, they’re not a reflection on how clean you are. Worms just like to party and will go with anyone, anywhere and at anytime. (You should also know the worms in humans are not the same worms that are lurking inside of Fido or Fluffy. So don’t panic.)

During exam time you will want to be at your best, so get wormed! You’ll sleep and eat better, and be less irritable.

Glue in the guts

Remember when you were in kindy and you used to make your own glue? A little bit of flour and water mixed together made the perfect environmentally safe glue. Well kids, you’re still making glue of sorts. Eating carbohydrates that are too refined, such as white bread and white flour, is like eating glue. It sticks to your intestines.

Bread and water in your stomach is a form of glue. A small amount is fine and is easily processed. However, if you have too much bread then you’ll end up with a lot of glue in your guts, which will take a lot to process.

For example, if you have toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and pizza for dinner then your body is going to be working overtime processing all that flour. And you’re going to be tired and lethargic while your body is processing … processing … processing. Concentration? Forget it, you’ll just want to sleep.

So, you know the drill, we don’t have to tell you what to eat. Just know that too much white bread and refined carbohydrates aren’t good for you. Now’s the time to be drinking lots of water and eating a well balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veggies (and the occasional slice of pizza).

Choose a Mental Mentor (MM)

What’s a mental mentor? A mental mentor (MM) is someone who helps you to  think outside the school gates and beyond school life. An MM is someone who inspires you and who is successful in their chosen career.

The purpose of choosing an MM is to change your thinking and to help you see things from a different perspective—from their perspective. For a short time you pretend to stand in their shoes and think how they would approach a certain problem or situation. How do I think such-and-such would deal with this? What would they say to me if they were here right now? Would they tell me to quit or keep going? Would they tell me to seek advice if my problem was too big to handle by myself? Would they tell me to confide in a teacher or adult I trust? What would they do?

You’ll find that MMs are incredibly persistent people. When they were at school they were the ones who followed their passion and never gave up, and nor did they care what other kids said about them. That’s why they’re now successful. Bill Gates might have been called a nerd at school but he’s now a very rich and famous nerd!  And with 17 seasons and 250 episodes of South Park in the can we reckon Trey Parker and Matt Stone are having the last laugh. Dorks rock! (Well, that’s probably not what you call them now but you get what we’re trying to say.)

When you’ve spent your whole life at school, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine another life beyond the kids in your class. You may be the type of person who has a quirky personality or who is different from everyone else. And at times you may feel that you don’t always fit in. The good news is you’re not alone.

High achievers such as artists, designers, scientists, mathematicians, and lateral thinkers are often “different”. When you’re a teenager you don’t realise that everyone has setbacks—even successful people. What makes a person successful is how they deal with their setbacks.

And it’s these people who make great MMs because they were once like you—they were also different but they remained focused and pictured a life beyond the school gates; that’s how they achieved their success.

MMs are great for smaller issues; however, there are times when school can be quite cruel and other kids say and do the stupidest things, but just remember you’re never alone. Speak to someone in authority if you feel overwhelmed because you have the right to be happy and safe. And besides, we want you to go on and do great things because the world needs more “outside of the box” thinkers.

An MM can be anyone you want but make sure you choose someone who you know is a positive person and who would be in your corner supporting you, such as Lady Gaga-Gaga, Jason Wu, Chris Colfer, Mila Kunis, Layne Beachley, Adam Goodes, Ian Thorpe, Serena Williams, Natalie Du Toit, Kathy Freeman, Ben Robert-Smith, Todd Sampson, Louis Theroux, Steve Jobs, Brian Cox, Barack Obama, Dr Fiona Wood, Dr Charlie Teo or J K Rowling.