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Smart Professors - Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I just finished another faculty development book. Each time that I'm involved in a book , I often wish that I was just a little bit smarter so that the writing and thinking would go better. The project made me aware of how important it is for professors to work at their peak.

You should want to be smarter for two reasons: your own sake, because as you handle your academic responsibilities quicker and better you will have time and energy to create a great life, and for the sake of higher education, because the smarter you are, the more creatively you will contribute to your discipline and to the quality of instruction at your institution.

I know how much professors value being smart and want tips on how to make the most of their talents. I often use the acronym SSANER for the practices that help professors get and stay smart. This article takes one of the Ss, Sleep, and shows you how to become doing well with this practice makes you smarter.

One shortcut that professors often take when they are overwhelmed and stressed is to cut down on sleep. That turns out to be a big mistake. Sleep deprivation causes:

  • Driver fatigue which causes 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 1,550 deaths and more than 70,000 injuries.

  • Problems with motor control which contributes to the risk of accidents of all kinds whether auto, falling, and difficulty operating machinery safely.

  • Weight problems brought on by three effects of sleep deprivation: disrupted glucose metabolism, insulin resistance, and the disruption of the production of leptin, a hormone that regulates hunger and appetite.

  • Lowered cognitive and other decision-making abilities which lead to learning difficulties and general irritability. Those late night grading sessions will increase your grading time for papers that you could race through during the day.

By the way, your sleep deprived students will do poorer on at least one of their work tasks, taking exams, than if they got a normal night sleep. Whenever appropriate you might consider discussing the effects of sleep deprivation and how much better you feel since you started getting more sleep.

  • Lowered frustration tolerance and managing emotions. Small frustrations become big aggravations. Your late night grading session will likely result in lowered student grades since your sleep-deprived irritability will lower your tolerance for student mistakes. While no one has studied the effect of sleep deprivation on faculty mood, a study of UCLA college students deprived of sleep for a week found that they began show symptoms of depression in otherwise healthy students.

  • Impairment to immune functions, making you more vulnerable to various maladies such the common cold and perhaps even to some kinds of cancer related to weakened immune functions.

  • Susceptibility to lowered immune system and illnesses such as diabetes.

Professors often develop sleep deprivation habits during crises in graduate school when they are pushing to reach deadlines on dissertations and other projects and then continue those habits after the crisis calms down and start their professorial careers.

The cumulative effect of this bad habit can shorten the years of your life and can decrease the life in your years.

Why We Need Sleep

For decades, scientists have not been sure why we actually need to sleep. They knew the negative effects of sleep deprivation such as those listed above but only inferred the benefits of sleep by examining research results such as these:

  • Draining of lactic acid, a substance built up in our muscles when we use them. Without this clearing out, your muscles will hurt more the day after a strenuous workout than if you rest.

  • Consolidating of memories. Sleep deprivation causes memory difficulties, both difficulty encoding experiences into memory and decoding memories that did make it into long term memories.

  • Clear headed thinking. New research by Maiken Nedergaard and her team at the University of Rochester Medical Center (2013) have discovered another benefit of sleep. It seems that sleep helps the flushing of waste products in the brain through mechanisms the “glymphatic” system. This system flushes enough fluid from the brain through the space between brain cells that it increases the spaces between the brain cells by 60% thus causing more efficient movement of the brain fluid that flushes toxins away. This nightly cleanse may act like a protection factor for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease because when the researchers injected amyloid-beta, a natural byproduct of brain function that, when it builds up, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, into their lab rats’ brain, the researchers found that the glymphatic system was 10 times more active during sleep than when the rats were awake thus sweeping away the debris to the liver, where it gets disposed. Better sleep habits may keep you smarter longer and, in the short term, may help you wake up with a “clear head” because toxins were flushed from your brain while you sleep.

Guidelines for Restful Sleep

Help nature along by allowing your brain to get the maximum benefit from your time in bed.

  • Sleep needs are individualized but vary around a tight average, 7 ½ - 8 ½ hours a night. You know you are getting enough sleep if you wake on your own without an alarm feeling refreshed, get through the day with very little daytime sleepiness, and are able to fall asleep in about 20 minutes at night. Flip those indicators over and you have a check list for not enough rest: needing an alarm to wake, fighting sleepiness all day (other than the after-lunch or mid-afternoon slump everyone has), and falling asleep immediately when your head hits the pillow.

  • Avoid stimulation such as caffeine consumption and exercise close to bedtime.

  • Allow sufficient wind down time at night for the brain to build sufficient serotonin, the neurotransmitter that relaxes us and allows us to sleep deeply. Do relaxing rather that stimulating late night activities such as reading (not exciting mystery novels), eating a light snack (a heavy meal), listening to music (not hard rock), meditating, or taking a leisurely bath.

  • Avoid bright lights and blue lights. Thomas Edison did us no favor when he invented the light bulb because light after dark takes us away from our more natural ancestral roots in which our cave ancestors got tired when the sun set, used the camp fire and candles for a little early evening light, and then fell asleep in the dark. Dimming the lights across your evening will cue your brain to produce more serotonin and increase sleepiness. Stay away from the blue lights of TV, computer, tablet, smart phone, and other electronic screens.

  • Sleep in a room that is dark (no blue lights from the electric vampires), cool (low 60s), and quiet (no TVs on in the background).

  • Naps are not necessarily bad for your nighttime sleep. It all depends on how early in the day or how deeply you sleep. Your ideal nap would be to siesta shortly after lunch as people do in non-US cultures and to doze for only 20 minutes without getting into such a deep sleep that it replaces one of your nightly sleep cycles.

Changing Bad Habits

  1. It may take up to three weeks to clear out a serious sleep debt. Be patient. You should start feeling better immediately but with regular sleep you can continue to improve for a few weeks.

  2. Try to allow natural sleepiness and a relaxing evening to produce enough sleepiness to fall asleep. Don’t use chemical sleep aids including alcohol; they have a potential for dependency and they produce unnatural sleep patterns that do not restore your brain’s depletion.

  3. Go to bed and get up at approximately the same time each day. If you stay up late on weekends, resist the temptation to sleep later. Instead, prevent what is known as “social jet lag” by continuing with the same waking time. Even though you may feel a little sleepy on the weekend, this strategy encourages a natural sleep-wake cycle that ensures that you will be alert and smart during your work week.


Healthy sleep hygiene habits will help you work more productively and happily.

Susan Robison

© Copyright 2014 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without the publisher’s permission.

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