By LeAnne Stuver, M.Ed, BSN and Dr. Krystal Culler, DBH, M.A.
We all know that we feel better after a good night’s sleep. We feel more alert, more energized and are able to be more productive.
We also know the opposite is true, as well—we have trouble concentrating, have less energy and often struggle to be productive when we have not gotten enough sleep.
We often think about our sleep in regard to how it helps/hurts our physical performance – but do we think enough about how our sleep habits impact our brain?
The Sleep-Brain Connection
Sleep affects almost every system in the body. Sleep is essential for brain health. It allows our brain to recharge and consolidate memories. It helps regulate our mood, learning, and overall cognitive function.
Our brain is very busy when we are asleep. Good quality sleep ensures our brain is able to perform vital “cleaning” tasks. Autophagy is the name of the process when our brain cells clear away waste products that accumulate from the chemical reactions taking place in our brain. This process also helps regulate our neurotransmitters – chemicals vital for normal brain function. Autophagy is always taking place in our brain, but it is greatly increased while we are asleep.
Stages of Sleep
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are four stages of sleep that can be linked to specific brain wave patterns and neuronal activity. We cycle through these stages several times each night.
- Falling asleep (N1) – lasts a few minutes
- Light sleep (N2) – lasts about 25 minutes
- Slow wave sleep (N3) – deepest sleep state
- REM sleep (R) – first reached 90 minutes after falling asleep (dreaming stage, increased brain activity)
Our circadian rhythms also influence our sleep. They are the fluctuations in our hormones, body temperature and metabolism that synchronize with environmental cues like light and temperature to promote/disrupt our sleep patterns. Learn more about our internal body clock in our past blog.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, we are getting two hours less sleep a night than we did 50-100 years ago; we are getting 38 minutes less sleep each weeknight than we did 10 years ago; and between 50 to 70 million adults suffer from some form of chronic sleep disorder such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea.
Some of the reasons scientists have attributed to these changes in our sleep patterns are electric lighting, technology (computers/TV/cell phones), stress, anxiety, a work-focused culture, and higher global temperature values.
Adults older than 25 should get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Adults over 60 tend to sleep less than this recommendation. As we age, sleep is lighter (less REM sleep) and interrupted by multiple awakenings (bathroom visits, medication side-effects, physical discomfort).
Inadequate Sleep and the Brain
According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta in “12 Weeks to a Sharper You” there are many consequences to the brain of chronically being deprived of adequate sleep.
- Concentration and attention issues
- Learning and memory problems
- Difficulty processing information
- More likely to make poor or risky decisions
- Decreased capacity for feeling empathy
- Higher risk of depression or mood disorders
- Higher risk of dementia
Sleep and Dementia
According to the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), sleep disturbances are linked to an increased risk of developing dementia. They cite several reasons for their findings.
- Accumulation of waste products in the brain (less autophagy during sleep)
- Increased inflammation throughout the body with less sleep
- Increased oxidative stress from increased stress hormones
- Decreased functioning of neurons in the brain (cells in the brain crucial to all brain functions)
The GCBH states that “maintaining good sleep quality throughout your lifespan promotes better cognitive functioning in aging adults”.
Benefits of Healthy Sleep Patterns
Quality sleep is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. There are many benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.
- Improved attention, focus and concentration
- Better memory and information processing
- Lower risk of high-blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke
- Enhanced immune function
- Reduced stress levels
- Improved mood and mental well-being
- Maintaining a healthy weight
Sleep hygiene is the habits and practices that promote good quality sleep and help prevent sleep disturbances. The GCBH recommends the following suggestions to improve the quality of your sleep.
- Set a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time each day (even weekends)
- Expose your eyes to sunlight in the morning (helps set your circadian rhythm)
- Participate in regular physical activity early in the day
- Avoid long naps late in the day (no longer than 30 minutes and no later than 3:00 pm)
- Avoid caffeine after 2:00 pm
- Do not eat or drink for 2-3 hours before bed
- Ideal bedroom conditions
- Cool – between 60 and 67 degrees
- Quiet – no TV or phone
- No pets
- Establish a bedtime routine (30 minutes to relax/unwind before crawling into bed)
- Avoid blue light from phones/computers/TV
- Find a calming activity that works for you
- Warm bath/shower
- Light reading
- Soothing music
- Herbal tea
- Meditation (guided relaxation, deep/slow breathing)
- Manage your daytime stress levels
In summary, sleep and brain health are closely interconnected. Getting adequate amounts of good-quality sleep is essential for maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of developing dementia. It is important to make sleep a priority in your brain health routine!