Sleep: our secret superpower

Ilia Lindsay

What if there was something we could do every day that supported the strength of your immune system, regulated brain function, facilitated new memory storage, repair of body tissues and stimulating growth and was able to regulate appetite and metabolism?

What if there was something we could do every day that would support our ability to concentrate, to learn, to build relationships and regulate risk taking behaviours?

What if this was something we all had access to every day?

What if I told you this powerful “something” is... Sleep.

Yes, sleep. Sleep is one of the single most powerful processes we can give our physical and mental health every day to improve our quality of life and wellbeing. Sleep is our secret superpower (Park et al., 2019, Kasagra, 2020).

Sleep is made up of different stages moving through rapid eye movement (REM) to non-REM sleep. We cycle through REM and non-REM sleep several times a night depending on how long you are asleep and the quality of that sleep (George & Davis, 2013). Each stage, affects the brain in different ways:

  • REM sleep is best known for its role in memory consolidation and brain development (Peever & Fuller, 2017)
  • non-REM sleep is important for cell growth and repair and metabolism regulation.

We know how important sleep is and yet it continues to be elusive for students, parents and teachers alike. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s expert panel, an adolescent should aim to be getting 8-10 hours sleep each night. However, research shows us that many adolescents are not reaching this standard, with one study finding that 72% of its participants were getting less than 8hours sleep (Kansagra, 2020). We know that some of the main barriers to good sleep for adolescents are excessive device use in evenings, irregular sleep schedules and poor nutritional choices prior to bedtime such as caffeine intake (Galland et al., 2017). Unfortunately, the research also shows us that if left un-checked, poor sleep can lead to an increased vulnerability to mental and physical health difficulties.

Researchers have explored a variety of factors to work out to enhance good sleep (both quality and quantity). We call this Sleep Hygiene. The basic concept of sleep hygiene is that there are environmental factors that we can manipulate which will optimise our sleep - by 'optimise' we mean making sure you get enough and the right type of sleep. There is now much evidence to suggest that sleep hygiene strategies can provide long-term solutions to sleep difficulties.

Here are a few of our favourite sleep hygiene strategies that can help support students get the most out of their sleep.

  1. Create a routine - one of the best ways to enhance sleep is to train your body to sleep by going to bed and getting up around the same time each day. Creating a regular rhythm helps your body to know when to prepare for sleep.
  2. Avoid caffeine - caffeine is a stimulant so by definition speeds up the messages between the brain and body making you feel more alert and awake which is not conducive to sleep onset.
  3. Avoid device use - exposure to device blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep onset. Even dim light can interfere with melatonin release.
  4. Sleep space - it is very important that your sleeping space and bedroom is comfortable for sleeping. You may want to consider what your preferences are for:
  • temperature of your room
  • scents and smells
  • amount of light
  • sounds or silence
  • physical comforts such as pillows and blankets.

How are you going to help yourself and your students access and enhance their sleep super power?




  • Colrain, I. M. (2011). Sleep and the brain. Neuropsychology review, 21(1), 1-4.
  • Galland, B. C., Gray, A. R., Penno, J., Smith, C., Lobb, C., & Taylor, R. W. (2017). Gender differences in sleep hygiene practices and sleep quality in New Zealand adolescents aged 15 to 17 years. Sleep Health, 3(2), 77-83.
  • George, N. M., & Davis, J. E. (2013). Assessing sleep in adolescents through a better understanding of sleep physiology. AJN The American Journal of Nursing, 113(6), 26-31.
  • Kansagra, S. (2020). Sleep disorders in adolescents. Pediatrics, 145(Supplement_2), S204-S209.
  • Park, H., Chiang, J. J., Irwin, M. R., Bower, J. E., McCreath, H., & Fuligni, A. J. (2019). Developmental trends in sleep during adolescents' transition to young adulthood. Sleep medicine, 60, 202-210.
  • Peever, J., & Fuller, P. M. (2017). The biology of REM sleep. Current Biology, 27(22), R1237-R1248.