5 Ways Sleep Improves Learning

Do you struggle to sleep at night?

You might be lying awake for long hours before you’re able to drift off, or perhaps you wake up 2-3 hours after falling asleep and can’t doze off again.

Or maybe you don’t get any sleep at all at night and fight to stay awake during the day, struggling with focus and productivity.

A healthy sleep schedule is incredibly important for numerous aspects of your life.

How much you’re able to focus and stay motivated during the day, your ability to learn, create and retain memory, your emotional stability, are all impacted by sleep.

Sleep also plays a role in your mental health, metabolism, physical health and more!

What Happens to Your Learning When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

Among the many downsides of not getting enough sleep, a major impact is how it damages your ability to learn and recall new information.

When you’re asleep, your brain is still active. In fact, it is during deep, slow-wave sleep that your brain works on creating long-term memory, making sense of, and connecting information you learned through the day to what you already know.

Have you ever pulled an all-nighter, or had to go to work or school after a poor night’s rest, and realized your memory felt foggy and things easily slipped your mind?

This is one reason why. Your hippocampus and neocortex use the time while you’re asleep to create more permanent memory of what you learned, and come up with new ideas using this information, or solutions to problems.

Without this opportunity, you’re much more likely to lose the information you took in.

In fact, studies show that people who sleep better at night, or even take short naps during the day, perform better in tests and at work than those who go without sleep.

That’s not all. A lack of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep affects your amygdalae – almond-sized nuclei in your brain which regulate emotions like anxiety, stress, embarrassment, fear, and so on.

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People who don’t get enough quality sleep tend to have larger amygdalae and stay more reactive to negative emotions they experienced the day before than those who do get enough sleep.

If you’ve woken up cranky or upset after a restless night, this is why.

Along with the poor mood, lack of sleep causes a build-up of a waste product in your amygdalae and other parts of your brain that causes brain fog.

This makes it harder for you to focus, learn, or create memory.

Another reason you might feel unmotivated and unable to focus or stay alert is the fact that a lack of sleep can cause a dopamine deficit.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or brain chemical which regulates motivation.

It lights up the reward center of your brain when it expects something important to happen and gives you the drive to keep working for it in anticipation of the reward.

The sense of pleasure and the drive to get more of it that you experience when you accomplish something is thanks to dopamine.

A decrease in your dopamine levels because of poor sleep causes you to be less motivated, focused, and alert the next morning, spelling bad news for your productivity, learning and memory.

And these are just the effects poor sleep has on your learning and recall – there are many broad implications of lack of sleep on your overall mental and physical health as well.

So, what can you do to better manage your sleep? Here are some science-backed, natural strategies.

Table of Contents

1. Watch the Sunrise and Sunset

2. Know When to Avoid Blue Light

3. Understand the Role of Caffeine

4. Meditate Before Bed

5. Exercise During the Day

5 Ways Sleep Improves Learning

1. Watch the Sunrise and Sunset

5 Ways Sleep Improves Learning

Getting enough sun in the morning and in the evening is scientifically backed to help you sleep better!

And this is because exposure to natural sunlight at dawn and dusk helps regulate your body’s circadian rhythms, or your 24-hour cycle of wakefulness and sleep.

Your eyes contain retinal cells which detect different degrees of light.

And when these cells detect the type of light you get at sunrise, they signal for the release of a steady level of cortisol – a hormone that alerts the rest of your body to start waking up.

You might have heard of cortisol as the “stress hormone” – and it is true that cortisol is associated with stress and mental health issues, especially if you’re experiencing cortisol spikes in the evenings.

However, early in the day, right as you wake up, a pulse of cortisol is a healthy increase.

Not only does it signal to the rest of your body that it’s time to start waking up, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, acclaimed neuroscientist at Stanford University, it also sets the timer on your body clock for another hormone – melatonin.

Melatonin is the opposite of cortisol – this hormone makes you sleepier.

And when your retinal cells receive natural sunlight at sunrise, and later at sunset, this specific quality and amount of light helps regulate a 12-14 hour cycle between cortisol release to wake you up in the morning, and melatonin release to get you sleepier in the evening.

Dr. Huberman strongly recommends going outdoors to experience natural sunlight directly, rather than through a window or through your sunglasses (unless you have a medical condition for which you need to protect your eyes).

This is tens of times more effective than artificial sunlight emulators or the blue light from your phone screens or fluorescent lightbulbs.

You don’t necessarily have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get your sleep cycle in order. Two or three hours after sunrise works just as well, and you’ll have to adjust depending on where you live and the type of lifestyle you lead.

If you don’t get a lot of sunlight in the mornings where you live, simply spend a little longer outside – around 10 minutes in the early morning light should do the trick. In places with little cloud cover and stark morning light, just a couple of seconds is enough.

This is the most direct and most effective way of getting your circadian rhythms in order. Your body has an in-built sleep system where the right degree of light in the mornings releases wakefulness-inducing cortisol, and in turn sets an alarm for 12 to 14 hours later for your sleep hormone, melatonin.

2. Know When to Avoid Blue Light

5 Ways Sleep Improves Learning

Your body syncs up with natural daylight to automatically regulate your sleep schedule. But that isn’t the only type of light you’re exposed to, which complicates matters.

You’re surrounded at all times by sources of artificial light – LED light bulbs, fluorescent lamps and of course the blue-light emitting screens of your phone, laptop, TV and other devices.

Naturally occurring blue light isn’t bad – it’s actually part of what helps you wake up and stay alert, motivated and in a good mood throughout the day.

This type of blue light is a part of the visible light spectrum and the different wavelengths of light making up natural sunlight.

It helps regulate your circadian rhythms, as when your retinal cells detect blue light, they send out signals to suppress the sleep hormone melatonin, keeping you alert and awake during the day.

However, if you continue to be exposed to artificial blue light after natural daylight fades away in the evening, this mechanism works against you.

Your brain and body get confused, suppressing melatonin production, and keeping you awake by releasing hormones like cortisol because your brain expects that it needs to stay alert.

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Your eyes are also naturally not great at focusing on blue light, since it scatters more easily than other light wavelengths – in fact, this is why on a clear cloudless day the sky appears so blue.

But when your eyes are constantly exposed to blue light throughout the day, because you’re spending so much time on screens or around artificial light sources, your eyes are working overtime to focus.

This leads to dry, irritable eyes, headaches, brain fog, and in serious cases damage to your retina. And of course, there’s the poor sleep aspect as well.

The best way of avoiding blue light after dark is to reduce or stop spending time on your screens in the evening, especially a couple of hours before bed.

If you absolutely must spend time on your screens, for work or because this is the only time you get to spend unwinding with a little Netflix, use blue light blockers to filter out blue light from your screens and surroundings after dark.

Blue light blockers can be purchased in the form of protective screens for your devices, red-tinted glasses (which completely block blue light) and photochromatic lenses.

You’ll also benefit from switching out fluorescent and LED lamps at home to full-spectrum lighting, which mimics natural daylight, or orange or red tinted lightbulbs for the evening.

3. Understand the Role of Caffeine

5 Ways Sleep Improves LearningAs Dr. Huberman points out, wakefulness and sleep are tied together and two halves of the same equation.

While you might rely on caffeine to keep you awake and alert during the day, caffeine can also have an impact on your sleep, as well.

When you’re awake, the neurotransmitter adenosine starts building up in your system. Adenosine is what makes you drowsy the longer you stay awake.

Caffeine helps wake you up by basically interfering with the work of the adenosine. It binds with your adenosine receptors and prevent these molecules from sending out those drowsiness signals that make you sleepy.

The problem is, after the caffeine passes out of your system, you can experience a crash, when the adenosine finally does get to bind with its receptors and you suddenly feel very exhausted and muddled.

Caffeine also causes a spike of dopamine, which makes you feel uplifted and motivated – but when it passes out of your system, the dopamine deficit makes you feel sluggish, demotivated and experience headaches and brain fog.

This can lead to a caffeine addiction where you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if you’re not constantly consuming caffeine.

While the effect caffeine has on different people is different, the caffeine from a cup of coffee can stay in your system for up to 10 hours after you consume some.

And if you have multiple cups a day, all that caffeine is interfering with your adenosine and disrupting your natural sleep cycle, with added side effects like making you feel jittery or making feelings of stress or anxiety worse.

Thankfully, there’s a great natural alternative for coffee that can keep you awake during the day without messing up your sleep cycle.

Black and green teas contain caffeine, but also consist of the amino acid l-theanine, which counters the jitters you might experience from caffeine.

It stimulates production of dopamine, and other productivity and mood boosting chemicals like serotonin, but also has a relaxing effect on you, and can even help reduce feelings of anxiety and promote better sleep!

4. Meditate Before Bed

5 Ways Sleep Improves LearningThere’s plenty of scientific literature proving the amazing brain and body benefits of meditation, and this includes its ability to promote better sleep.

Slow, mindful, and deep breathing is a central part of meditation. And not only does this help distract your mind from matters that might be keying you up too much to relax, but physiologically also puts you in the best state to fall asleep.

When you breathe in deeply and slowly, you activate your vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve of your body running from your brain down to your abdomen.

This in turn sends out signals throughout your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your body’s calming mechanism.

Deep, slow breathing helps slow down your heartrate, relax your muscles, reduce blood pressure, and so on.

By focusing inward and counting your breaths, your body actually reduces the levels of cortisol in your system which might be keeping you awake and boosts up sleep-inducing melatonin!

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Here’s a simple breathing exercise you can use to meditate – breathe in slowly for 4 counts. Hold this in for 4 counts, and then breathe out slowly for 4 counts. Repeat this a few times.

There are also plenty of sleep meditation videos on YouTube which help you mindfully relax and ground yourself in your body while doing breathing exercises!

5. Exercise During the Day

5 Ways Sleep Improves LearningNeuroscientists consistently find a strong connection between exercise and quality and quantity of sleep.

When you exercise earlier in the day, your body temperature increases. As this temperature gradually falls over the next couple of hours, it mimics the cooldown that happens before you fall sleep and can trigger sleepiness.

Exercising at the beginning of your day can literally wake you up – you start breathing deeper and your heart beats faster, sending a rich supply of oxygen to your brain.

This allows your brain to work faster and more efficiently, processing information rapidly and creating new neural connections (connections between brain cells to store information), putting you in the optimum state of mind for learning and work.

Physical activity also triggers the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, while reducing the levels of stress hormones like endorphins and adrenaline.

Not only does this leave you in a great mood, motivated to take on the day, serotonin is also a precursor for melatonin and plays a part in the sleep-wake cycle.

Essentially, physical activity during the day helps you get better, sounder sleep at night!

Try out these 5 ways sleep improves learning – you not only enjoy enhanced learning and recall, but a multitude of health and mood benefits as well!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, inclluding Total Recall Learning™. 

Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

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