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How does sleep influence learning?

You’ve probably come across statements such as: "People need eight hours of sleep", "older people need less sleep than younger people" or "those who take a long time to fall asleep need to go to bed especially early".

But are these statements true? What constitutes so-called "healthy sleep"? And can you really improve your learning through sleep? This article has all the answers you need!

The sleep rhythm

Let's start with the term: sleep rhythm. Sleeping can be divided into five phases:
  • Falling asleep
  • Light sleep
  • Medium-low sleep
  • Deep sleep
  • Dream sleep (the REM phase)

All these phases together form a cycle, which is repeated differently for each person during sleep. The sleep rhythm is nothing other than the sleep cycle combined with the individual needs of each person.

While all people have the same sleep cycles, they do not have the same sleep rhythm. For example, child A repeats the sleep cycle only three times in one night, while child B repeats it seven times. Each person has their own sleep rhythm, and it is important for each person to find out how much sleep they need.

Healthy sleep

Healthy sleep is not characterised by a certain number of hours or a certain bed time. As mentioned earlier, sleeping is unique for every individual so healthy sleep will vary from person to person.Use the following pointers to find out what your healthy sleep pattern is:
  • Find out how much sleep you need to be productive and alert during the day. Too little or too much sleep can lead to sluggishness and unproductivity. How can you do this? Well, there are different approaches to finding your optimal number of hours of sleep. One of the most effective is to take a few days (preferably when you have no commitments) and go to bed when you are tired. Then, get up when you first wake up. Write down the number of hours you have slept and repeat this for a few nights in a row. Calculate the average and this will tell you how many hours of sleep are optimal for you.
  • Now find out what times are best for you to go to bed. People who struggle to get up early, are a fan of the snooze button, have their peak performance around 4 p.m. and can be awake until early in the morning are called owls. On the other hand, Larks get up bright and early, have their performance peak at around 8 a.m.-12 p.m. and become drowsy at around 10 p.m. Again, observe what times you get tired and when you are most productive.
  • In addition to the times at which you fall asleep or wake up, it is also important to have a good mattress and the right pillow.
  • Only go to bed when you are already tired. Don't stay awake in bed for hours, there's no point.
  • If possible, don't take midday naps, as they will disrupt your sleep rhythm.

  • How much sleep does a child or adult need?

    It has been proven that sleep patterns change from time to time. While children between the ages of 6 and 13 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep and adolescents between 8 and 10 hours, senior citizens (65 and over) often only need 5 to 6 hours of sleep. Therefore, it’s important to check and adjust your own sleep needs at different stages of life.

    Consequences of too little sleep

    Those who suffer from sleep deprivation have to deal with immediate consequences, such as imbalance, concentration problems, headaches, slower reaction times and cognitive and physical performance losses. Prolonged sleep deprivation can also contribute to long-term health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems and dementia. Sleep deprivation is a serious matter that should be treated by a doctor, not on your own.

    What does my sleep rhythm have to do with my learning?

    When you sleep, your body temperature goes down, your pulse and blood pressure decrease, your muscles relax and other processes are activated.
    • Autophagocytosis
    • Autophagocytosis is the process by which cells degrade and proteins are recycled. Cells use this recycling process to counteract the negative effects of ageing on the body and to repair itself. This process mainly takes place at night, so not sleeping enough hinders the recycling process and therefore cells do not have the opportunity to ‘clean’ themselves. There is a link between autophagocytosis and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It is also suggested hindering this process hinders long-term memory storage and information recall.
    • Neurogenesis
    • During neurogenesis, nerve cells are formed from stem cells and this process still happens in adulthood. Researchers suspect that long-term memory is strongly dependent on neurogenesis, which is dependent on sleep.

    Therefore, those who learn a lot should remember the following: for memory, the first 20 hours after learning play an important role. Those who study regularly should stick to the following schedule:
    • Study in the morning, repeat the content you have covered in the evening before going to bed, and sleep as long and deeply as possible.

    This is how you sleep best

    A minimum of five to six hours of sleep and an empty stomach are recommended. This means: no heavy meals before going to bed and avoid substances like nicotine and alcohol. You can find more tips on how to get a good night sleep here


    Find out what your personal sleep rhythm is. Try to stick to this rhythm to prevent memory loss and other health problems. Avoid alcohol and nicotine, especially when you’re trying to learn. By following these tips, you’ll be well prepared for effective learning.
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