How to Get Better Sleep for Learning

Have you ever pulled an all-nighter to study for a test, or for work?

There might be a bunch of reasons why you chose to do so. Maybe you didn’t have enough time to work on the project during the day. Perhaps the deadline was just around the corner and there was still too much left to do.

Whatever the case, here’s the neuroscientific verdict on skipping science to sleep – it’s bad for your learning.

How Does Sleep Affect Learning?

How to Get Better Sleep for LearningResearchers find that sleep is as important as wakefulness for learning. In fact, as you sleep, your brain continues to learn and process memory.

Your sleeping brain provides the best conditions for what you learn to get worked into your existing knowledge. Different types of memory consolidate during different stages of sleep.

Your hippocampus and neocortex stay active while you’re in dreamland, processing what you learned during the day. They work to make sense of it, moving it into your long-term memory, connecting it to what you already know.

For something to become a memory, there are three things that you need to do.

Firstly, you acquire the information – and this happens when you’re awake.

Secondly, you have to consolidate this information.

To give your brain the space to cement what you learned by making sense of it and connecting it to what you know, it needs some down-time.

Sleep provides the perfect opportunity, because your brain isn’t distracted by constantly scanning and processing your environment.

And thirdly, you strengthen the memory by recalling it and retrieving it from where it’s embedded into your neural pathways.

When you learn something new, your brain creates these pathways between its neurons or brain cells.

Every time you recall this information, the neurons fire up. The more you do this, the stronger the pathway gets. As a result, the stronger your memory of this knowledge becomes!

As you can see, sleep is an integral part of the learning and memory-making process.

Plenty of studies show how after just one night’s quality sleep, or even a nap, people perform better in school, at work, in sports, and so on.

Sleep doesn’t just impact memory, but also your ability to learn the following day.

If you’re not properly rested, you’re going to find it harder to learn and focus.

Just one night without sleep can cause a build-up of the waste product beta-amyloid in your brain. This build-up can give you brain fog – you might feel muddled, fuzzy, unable to learn, focus or remember.

In the long run, this may even increase your risk of getting Alzheimer’s.

Now that you know about the critical role sleep plays in learning and memory, the question you’re probably asking is:

“How can I get better sleep for learning?”

Here’s what neuroscience has to say.

Table of Contents

1. Set Your Body’s Sleep Timer

2. Adjust Your Circadian Clock in the Evening

3. Avoid Bright Light at Night

4. Mind Your Caffeine

5. Mind What You Eat

6. Exercise Early in the Day

How to Get Better Sleep for Learning

1. Set Your Body’s Sleep Timer

How to Get Better Sleep for LearningYou might have heard of the term “body clock” or even your “circadian rhythms”.

These refer to actual biological mechanisms within your body that naturally sync up to a 24-hour cycle.

By understanding how these mechanisms work, you can maintain a wakefulness-sleep cycle that’s best for your learning and memory. Getting proper sleep by syncing up your circadian rhythms also improves your overall health and well-being!

One of the best methods of making sure you fall asleep at the right time is to wake up early.

You might think this is just because you’ll get tired through the day and find it easier to fall asleep later. But there’s more to it than that.

When the cells in your eyes detect early morning light, they send out signals to your body’s circadian clock. This in turn signals for the release of healthy doses the hormone cortisol.

This cortisol fires off through your body getting the rest of your systems waking up and preparing to be alert.

This morning cortisol release also sets the timer on your sleep hormone, melatonin, to start releasing some 14 hours later.

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Melatonin is what gets you feeling drowsy 12 to 16 hours after waking up, because of your in-built body clock!

So, make sure that you’re waking up and getting that morning sunlight. Mid-afternoon sunlight doesn’t work in the same way – you only get this effect in the early morning.

If you live in a location that tends to be overcast or doesn’t get much light, you can spend a little longer outside. Your eyes add up the light photons it receives. So, spending 9-10 minutes outside on a cloudy day works just as well.

Even when it’s overcast, the light intensity you’ll get in natural daylight is surprisingly powerful!

If getting outdoor light is inconvenient, you can also use bright artificial lights indoors. Just don’t make them so strong that it hurts or stings your eyes!

2. Adjust Your Circadian Clock in the Evening

How to Get Better Sleep for Learning

Along with watching the sunrise, neuroscience also highlights the benefits you’d experience watching the sunset.

Throughout the day, the light-detecting cells in your eyes get more and more sensitive.

This means that as the day progresses, even a little bright light can actually upset your wakefulness-sleep cycle.

Artificial blue light is especially a cause of worry.

When your eyes detect this light wavelength, they fire off signals to suppress your sleep hormone, melatonin.

During the day, this is great. Blue light from the sun and from artificial sources keeps you awake, alert, and even in a good mood.

Later in the evening, though, artificial blue light or bright lights overall can keep suppressing melatonin. This wreaks havoc on your sleep schedule, and no matter how tired you are, your brain struggles to switch off.

This is where the sunset can help.

When your eyes detect the specific blue-yellow contrast of natural sunset, it helps reduce the sensitivity of your light-detecting cells.

This gives you a bit of a buffer to artificial bright light exposure in the evenings!

It also helps push your sleep timer back just a little. As a result, you don’t end up sleeping too early, and waking up in the middle of the night!

3. Avoid Bright Light at Night

How to Get Better Sleep for Learning

You’re constantly surrounded by artificial light sources, especially in the evening. In fact, you’re probably so used to it that you don’t even think about it when you’re switching on overhead lights in your home or sitting down to watch TV.

But blue light at night, and bright lights in general, are often the main culprits in disrupting your sleep schedule.

Although sunlight at dusk can reduce your eyes’ sensitivity to bright light, it’s not enough to completely protect them. This is especially so if you’re going to be spending hours surrounded by fluorescent lights and blue-light emitting screens.

Melatonin suppression isn’t the only downside to bright lights at night either.

Bright light detection can also suppress your dopamine pathways. Dopamine is your motivation molecule – it’s what gives you the drive to accomplish your goals.

If you get too much bright light in the evenings, you might wake up the next morning feeling demotivated. You’d find it much harder to focus, learn and remember.

You’d also have a harder time falling asleep and waking up early to get that morning boost of sunlight.

Blue blockers like photochromatic lenses and blue light filtering screens are an option if you need to be on screens after sunset.

But remember, it’s not just blue light but bright lights overall that can disrupt your melatonin and dopamine mechanisms.

So, after dark, opt for dimmer lighting in your home and on your screens. Dim red light works best to eliminate blue light in your environment.

Also, it’s best to choose lights closer to the ground, rather than overhead lights. Since your eyes naturally detect and respond to overhead sunlight, they might be sensitive to overhead lights indoors as well.

4. Mind Your Caffeine

How to Get Better Sleep for LearningYou might be one of many people who can barely function without multiple cups of coffee a day.

But caffeine can have some adverse effects on your sleep. Understanding how and why this happens lets you also figure out how to mind your caffeine for better sleep.

Why does caffeine wake you up?

Essentially, it binds with the receptors of the molecule adenosine, stopping it from doing its job. Adenosine makes you drowsy; it’s at its lowest when you’ve just woken up and builds up through the day.

If you have coffee or tea first thing after waking up, and then experience a midday crash, this is why.

Since your adenosine levels are already low, there’s a mismatch between rising adenosine levels through the day and the caffeine.

Once it passes out of your bloodstream, all the adenosine that had been building up binds to its receptors. This is why you might feel that caffeine crash, where you’re suddenly extremely tired and drowsy.

This might be why you reach for a second or third cup, to get you going again.

But the bad news is, the later in the day you have caffeine, the more likely it’ll be in your system when you actually want to fall asleep.

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So, try this – rather than having caffeine right after waking up, wait about 2 hours or so first.

By this time, adenosine would have built up in your system. The caffeine would then give you a boost to carry you past the midday slump.

You’d then not feel the need to drink a second or third cup later in the day as urgently.

Even if you do, because you just can’t do without coffee, opt for decaf.

Caffeine can also be addictive if you have too much. If you grow to rely on it frequently, you might experience withdrawal symptoms like brain fog, headaches, sluggishness, and irritability.

Too much caffeine in your system can also give you jitters and make feelings of stress and anxiety worse.

The bottom line – mind your caffeine!

5. Mind What You Eat

How to Get Better Sleep for Learning

Have you ever felt really sleepy and sluggish after a meal?

Chances are your meal was full of carbs.

Carbs tend to make you feel sleepier because they divert your body’s resources toward digestion.

In turn, you start feeling tired and drowsy, having a harder time focusing.

So, carbs at the beginning or midpoint of the day could be a speedbump to your productivity.

Opt for protein-rich foods earlier in the day instead. Foods containing l-tyrosine and choline, like meats, fish, nuts and seeds, and dairy products, can keep you alert and awake through the day.

These compounds are precursors to molecules like dopamine and acetylcholine, which keep you alert, focused and motivated!

You can save the carbs – like rice, pasta, breads and so on – for later in the evening. The sleepiness you’d experience as your body digests your meal can ease you into a restful night’s sleep!

Note, though, that there are good and bad carbs. Refined white flour and sugar, and greasy fried foods, have plenty of damaging long-term implications on brain and body health.

Go for healthier carbs instead, later in the day!

6. Exercise Early in the Day

How to Get Better Sleep for LearningGetting in some exercise early in the day – within 3 hours of waking up – helps you wake up earlier!

It helps your brain and body develop the habit of naturally waking up early. In turn, this lets you set your melatonin timer up to help you get proper sleep later in the day.

Not only this, but it gives you the boost of alertness you need for learning to start your day!

Exercise triggers the release of chemicals like adrenaline, acetylcholine, and dopamine. These work together to create a state of high alertness, focus and motivation – the perfect state for learning and productivity!

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You’ll find that you experience greater clarity and mental sharpness after exercising.

Your heart is beating faster and you’re breathing deeper. As a result, your brain is receiving a rich supply of oxygen. This helps your brain cells work faster and more efficiently, creating associations and pathways for learning and memory.

Remember, though – because exercise boosts alertness and raises your body temperature, exercising in the evening might delay your sleep schedule.

Now you know both why sleep is essential for learning, as well as how to get better sleep for learning!

Which of these tips helps you get a better night’s rest? Try them out and let me know!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of 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, including 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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