9 Ways to Improve your Sleep Quality and your Brain Health
By Anastasia Dimitropoulou
Nearly two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to meet the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organization (though there are some individual differences with regards to what is the optimal amount of sleep to aim for).
Today, there is an epidemic of sleep deprivation: 1 out of 2 people sleep less than 6 hours per night.
Our modern lifestyle has changed our perception of sleep. We now consider sleep as an obstacle to our work and social lives, a biological process that keeps us from being productive.
Our increased responsibilities, all the distractions in our bedroom including the lights from all electronic gadgets, the absence of natural light, our current nutrition, late dinners and not enough time to relax and get ready to go to bed? We have simply stopped respecting sleep.
Our sleep quality has also deteriorated. People have trouble falling asleep, they wake up frequently during the night and some suffer from sleep apnea, which affects their quality of life, cognitive functions and can increase the risk for cardiovascular disorders.
What is the impact of sleep deprivation?
A chronic lack of sleep brings about a whole host of physical, cognitive, and mental issues. It increases your risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. It harms your memory, attention, focus, and learning capacity.
Dr. Matthew Walker, in his book “Why We Sleep“, notes that:
“After being awake for nineteen hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.”
His research is highlighted in his TEDx talk on “Sleep is your superpower”:
A new study from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm shows that even one night of bad sleep can negatively impact your mood and challenge your ability to regulate your emotions, straining your social interactions and your well-being.
Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
Studies show that people with AD often have sleep problems. Furthermore, there’s growing evidence that people with sleep problems are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.
There is a relationship between slow-wave sleep and beta-amyloid, a protein fragment that accumulates in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Amyloid decreases sleep, and decreased sleep results in more amyloid.
A study published in Science earlier this month suggests that sleep can protect against AD. Slow waves in neural activity contribute to memory consolidation, whereas cerebrospinal fluid clears metabolic waste products from the brain.
Brain waves known as “slow waves” generated during deep sleep trigger a cleaning system (a pulse of fluid washes) in the brain. This presumably removes toxins associated with Alzheimer’s and hence, protects the brain against AD and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“There are a bunch of things that are probably contributing to people’s likelihood [of] getting Alzheimer’s…and I think sleep is going to turn out to be one of them” William Jagust says, a professor of Public Health and Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.
What are the benefits of a good night’s sleep?
- Better memory: Deep sleep consolidates our recent memories for long-term storage. This enhances our ability to quickly and accurately recall recent information.
- Sharpened focus and concentration: Our brains fail us after a sleepless night because we can’t properly regulate the part of our brain associated with consciousness, alertness (the thalamus), and decision-making (the frontoparietal circuits).
- Stabilized mood and closer relationships: Quality sleep could improve our ability to handle stress. Research from the University of L’Aquila in Italy demonstrates that well-rested individuals are better able to regulate their emotions and exhibit greater empathy toward others.
- Less pain: A recent study showed that sleep deprivation increased reactivity in the part of our brain that processes pain (the somatosensory cortex), suggesting that better sleep quality might be a potential therapeutic model for managing pain.
- Lightened anxiety: Sleeping well helps decrease the effects of chronic anxiety; conversely, study participants deprived of sleep for 24 hours experienced a 30 percent increase in anxiety the next day.
Is sleep gender-based?
Some of the sex and gender differences include the number of minutes it takes to fall asleep (sleep latency) which is longer in women than men. Women older than 55 report more sleepiness than men, and older women report 20 minutes less sleep than men. Due to their different communication styles, it is possible that women present their symptoms differently than men, contributing to gender bias.
Distinct hormonal and physical changes at specific stages during a woman’s life, such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, can impact her sleep health and lead to gender-specific clinical disorders. Studies in animal models have established a direct effect of hormones on sex differences in sleep behavior.
Normal sleep in women is affected by hormonal effects during menses, pregnancy/lactation, perimenopause, menopause, and post menopause. This often leads to sleep disturbances or sleep disorders during these periods.
For example, one-third of women complain of sleep disturbances and related symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and headaches during the premenstrual week or during menses.
Pregnancy tends to affect sleep negatively as of the first trimester, with women reporting that they wake up more often and have difficulties getting back to sleep. The post-partum period is often associated with severe sleep disruption, mainly due to feeding and comforting the infant – but there also seems to be some relation between sleep disruption and post-partum mood.
During menopause, changes in estrogen levels can result in hot flashes, night sweats, headaches, and palpitations, which can directly affect sleep.
Sleep-related health issues manifest and affect the lives of males and females differently. Females are more likely to have sleeping disorders associated with daytime sleepiness and are more likely to feel excessively tired and depressed, have difficulties with memory and concentration, and have trouble sleeping at night.
How about setting up a sleep routine?
A sleep routine is not just about a specific amount of time you should sleep. It’s about what you do during the hours before you go to bed, and when you wake up. It is the number of hours needed for you to wake up feeling refreshed, not feeling sleepy during the day, and being ready for bed at a regular time.
If you wake up before your alarm, do not need to catch up on sleep during the weekend, and have a rhythm as described above, then you are doing it right.
Here are some suggestions on how to develop an optimal sleep routine:
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm because it blocks the adenosine receptor and it does not allow you to fall asleep at night. Then adenosine (the sleepiness chemical) accumulates, your brain is thinking that it has not been awake for many hours, despite how sleepy and tired you feel, and you get a “caffeine crash” feeling an additional dose of sleepiness from the adenosine build up.
- Eat a light dinner (avoid refined carbs, dairy, and sugar) at least 3 hours before going to bed.
- Take a short 10-min walk around the block before going to bed and/or do 10 min of meditation in bed to boost sleep quality.
- Go to bed at the same time and sleep the same number of hours every night. When you have to wake up earlier, go to bed earlier too.
- Sleep in a room with minimum noise and remove all electronic devices an hour before you go to sleep. Our smartphones, with their bright screens and steady flow of alerts and notifications, disrupt our sleep.
- Create a dark sleep environment. Our bodies require darkness to release melatonin, the hormone that determines the healthy timing of our sleep. Dim down half the lights in your home about an hour before you go to bed to make it easier to fall asleep fast.
- Be at the right temperature. More and more research shows that sleeping in a cool and well-ventilated room is much better than sleeping in a warm room.
- Try to wake up with natural light to ease the body and brain’s transition to an awake state.
- When you wake up, don’t start your day by looking at your phone, as checking your emails in the morning increases your cortisol levels (the stress-hormone). (Get an old-fashioned alarm clock if it helps!)
Finally, it’s not just the few hours before bed that can improve your sleep quality. Your lifestyle – from nutrition to physical activity – all contribute to your quality of sleep.
Research has long shown that sleep is important for the consolidation of new information. Just as a sleep-deprived person has a hard time learning, the opposite is also true: getting a good night’s sleep can help seal in important information and memories.
Given how crucial sleep is for a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life, why wouldn’t you make sleep a priority?
We at WBP encourage a holistic and preventive approach to mental and brain health whenever possible. So, if there are specific challenges for you to adopt a better sleep routine, or if you have suggestions on actions that have worked well for you to improve your sleep quality, let us know in the comments below!