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Here's How to Support Brain Health with Sleep

Sleep and brain health are connected in the following ways.

Deposit photos
Source: Deposit photos

When we think of quality sleep, we typically think of it in relation to how it helps our body recover from a long day — and with good reason.

As I’ve talked about before, a good night’s sleep can work wonders for the body, whether it’s alleviating severe back pain or helping you bounce back from a tiring gym session.

But consistent, uninterrupted sleep goes beyond preserving and improving your body. Just as importantly, a good night’s sleep is essential when it comes to building a better and healthier brain.

Sleep plays a key role in memory retention, alertness, and improved creativity, among other benefits. These benefits apply to any age group.

Let’s run through a number of ways sleep helps improve your brain.

But first, keep in mind that you want to stay cool during the night. Research has shown between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for sleep. Keeping your body temperature low maximizes your time in bed by letting you reach REM sleep quicker — and helps you enjoy the brain boost that comes with it.

Sleep Improves Memory

Memory is directly connected to sleep habits. When you receive new information, your brain needs time for it to completely “stick” and become something you easily recall. This process, called “memory consolidation,” is when what we’ve learned shifts from short-term to long-term memory. And research indicates memory consolidation benefits from sleep.

One example: In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, participants were asked to memorize 15 cards with pictures of animals and different objects. They were then asked to memorize a slightly different batch of cards. Some of the participants were then allowed to sleep, while others were asked to stay up before being tested on how well they memorized the cards.

The group that was allowed to sleep performed much better — remembering 85% of the first batch of cards compared to only 60% for those who weren’t allowed to sleep.

The simple explanation is that while you’re awake, you continue to be inundated with new information that can dislodge what you just learned. But sleep improves memory by acting as an instant replay machine, allowing the mind to review what it’s learned during the day. Brain scans show the cerebellum, which controls short-term memory, is more active when sleeping. By getting a full night of sleep, your brain has more time to reinforce what it has just learned.

Sleep Deprivation Hurts Your Ability to Focus

Pulling an all-nighter and cramming before a big test is a college staple. But knowing what we know about the brain, it probably isn’t worth it.

Not only does sleep help you memorize what you learned, as we just mentioned, but it also improves your focus. Simply put: your brain doesn’t fire on all cylinders when it’s tired.

The billions of neural cells working in our heads, helping us make decisions, process information and focus, are compromised by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation, a team of UCLA researchers found, hampers our brain cells’ ability to work together. As one researcher put it, neural cells “responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual” for sleep deprived participants.

Your capacity for learning new information also suffers, with research suggesting you retain 40% less information when sleep deprived.

A lack of sleep hurts your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. To perform your best at work or school, a full night of sleep is critical.

A Good Night’s Sleep Boosts Creativity

Your ability to think outside the box, it turns out, is helped by getting good sleep.

Sleep helps with creativity, but reaching REM sleep is the key.

During non-REM sleep, which takes up about the first 90 minutes of your time sleeping, your brain is still wired to think literally; it’s also taking snapshots of memories and thoughts you had during the day, creating an inventory for your brain.

Later, during REM sleep, is when your brain removes the safety rails and starts to think abstractly. This period is when acetylcholine, a chemical that acts as a messenger between cells, floods the brain. When this happens, the brain starts searching for connections between unrelated ideas it’s already banked. This can lead to that “a-ha!” moment you sometimes have when you wake up after an important thought comes to you while you were asleep.

Research also shows REM sleep helps people perform better at tests that require creative thinking. One study from Harvard University showed participants who completed REM sleep performed about 30% better on anagram word puzzles than when they didn’t get a good night of sleep.

Remember, One thing that can block you from entering REM sleep as fast as possible is blue light, which radiates from your phones and other electronic devices. Staying off your phone an hour before bed will help you fall asleep quicker, but I know that’s easier said than done.

How You Can Help Your Brain Improve Through Sleep

The verdict is in: Sleep improves your brain in several ways. To enjoy those benefits, though, the first step is making sure you’re getting enough sleep. And remember, bedroom temperature is critical. If your room is too hot, you’ll likely end up waking up during the night, making it tough to really give your brain the boost it needs from sleep. A good night’s sleep is just as important for making sure you’re ready for a big day at the office as it is for if you’re preparing to run a 10K. Do yourself — and your brain — a favor and make sleep a priority.

More from Michael J. Breus Ph.D.
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