A WAKE-UP CALL
Our brain never sleeps. This may be a revelation to many of us who don’t really appreciate just how important sleep is for our memory – in fact how important it is for our entire brain and all our cognitive functions.
MEMORY BUSTING SLEEP PATTERNS
What’s your sleep pattern like?
- Tops out at 4 to 5 hours per night
- Interrupted every couple of hours
- Tossing and turning all night
- Taking what seems like hours to fall asleep
- No regular bedtime routine
- Travel so much that circadian rhythm is in a perpetual state of disruption
- Love being a night owl
- Get up before dawn every day just to keep up
- Sleep with my digital devices on my pillow
- Hoping to catch up on weekday sleep deprivation on the weekend
THE MEMORY (AND TOTAL BRAIN) COST OF EXISTING ON SLEEP FUMES
Here’s a rude awakening (sorry, for the pun). Your sleep habits could actually be impairing your memory and other cognitive abilities. What is even worse, by not sleeping you are putting yourself at risk for encouraging the premature aging of your brain.
You are not alone.
There are millions of us in this memory busting sleep deprived state.
The Sleep Association reports that between fifty and seventy million Americans have a sleep disorder. Short sleep duration is a significant problem for almost forty percent of adults between the ages of twenty and sixty who report they get less than seven hours of sleep per night. It seems I belong to a very big club of the sleep deprived.
THE PRICE OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION
Increased risk of Alzheimer’s
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience pointed out that a sleep-deprived brain may eventually start eating itself. In the short term, this could be a good thing, allowing the brain to clear out some debris and rebuild connections. But in the long term chronic sleep deprivation could result in an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
Elevated risk for cancer
Another study confirmed the increase in dementia risk in those who don’t get enough sleep by a factor of one point five. Also, that lack of sleep disrupts the normal function of the “sleep hormone” called melatonin. This, in turn, creates a cascade linked to tumor growth in lungs, elevating the risk for cancer.
Increase in anxiety and stress
Levels of our stress hormone go up affecting learning, mood, memory, and may even cause certain areas of the brain to shrink, impacting cognition even further. Then there’s the brain fog. The increase in anxiety levels.
Risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease
Lack of sleep is believed to promote obesity and is cited as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Not getting enough sleep increases our appetite and triggers cravings for high sugar and high-fat foods by lowering levels of leptin which controls whether or not we crave carbs.
Suppression of immune system
It has also been found to suppress our immune system making us more vulnerable to infections.
Sleep deprivation is a trigger for the very real risk of accidents and falling asleep at the wheel while driving, a growing problem across the country.
BENEFITS OF SMARTER SLEEP
The National Institutes of Health also weighed in on the importance of sleep as part of our daily routine. Sleep helps reinforce brain pathways that help us concentrate, react quickly, create new memories, remember old memories, and learn. It is important to those brain functions that impact how neurons or nerve cells communicate with each other.
In short, sleep affects practically every system in our bodies.
Cleans up brain toxins
Neuroscientists are just beginning to understand the dynamics and complexity of sleep. For now, we know that our brain doesn’t sleep. It acts as a kind of night cleaning crew, mopping up toxins in our brains that have accumulated during the day and strengthening our neural pathways so we can face a new day with stronger connections and a restored and rejuvenated brain.
Long Term Memory
Sleep is critical in two specific forms of long-term memory. The first is what experts call declarative. Declarative memories are memories like facts and events. The second is called procedural and it consists of memories of things like skills we have developed by practicing or repeating them. Think typing. Or playing an instrument.
During sleep memories formed during the day are moved into a kind of long-term storage where they are consolidated and become more stable and permanent, thus making them easier to recall.
Sleep also improves learning – another skill I needed to achieve my goal.
Sleep repairs and rejuvenates the brain through a process called synaptic homeostasis hypothesis which scientist believe helps us make better decisions and fewer mistakes in our daily lives.
Increase feelings of joy
Research now shows that adequate sleep helps us feel joy and happiness. Sleep can reduce feelings of irritability.
Better cognitive functions
Sleep improves judgment, decision-making, and creativity.
Helps in problem-solving
Sleep supports problem-solving. The adage, “sleep on it” may have its basis in neuroscience, as our brain keeps searching for a solution to whatever problem we are trying to solve while we are fast asleep.
We have more energy, our performance at work, at home, in fitness activities improves with more and better sleep.
Helps in weight loss
Several studies have also revealed that sleep plays a role in weight loss. One study showed that women whose sleep was interrupted had a much harder time sticking to a diet and lost less weight than those who enjoyed an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
Reduces cravings for junk foods
Another study showed that sleeping less increases our cravings for calorie-dense foods. The sleep-deprived ate six hundred calories more after a poor night’s sleep compared to when they slept well.
WHAT’S THE MAGIC SLEEP NUMBER?
Scientists recommend between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night
to keep your brain and memory power as strong as possible.
10 Top Sleep Secrets for a Stronger Memory
Our brain, I learned, likes it cool, between sixty to sixty-seven degrees Fahrenheit – the optimal temperature range for facilitating a night of better sleep. Even a slight increase in body temperature can excite the areas of the brain which regulate sleep cycles and cause sleep disturbances.
QUICK TIP – Turn down the temperature in your sleep space.
Light is also a significant factor in the quality of our sleep, say countless studies. Light plays an important part in regulating our circadian rhythm – our internal clock. Recent research identified a protein in the brain that responds to light and darkness and plays a role in modulating the optimum balance between our sleep and awake times.
Managing the lighting in your bedroom is important in ensuring a great sleep. Take a long hard look at the balance of light and darkness in your bedroom or sleep space and if you can see light coming through in the evening of at night it may be time to make some sleep-friendly changes.
QUICK TIP – Invest in some light-reducing blackout curtains to ensure darkness.
#3 BLUE LIGHT CURFEW
Several studies warn of exposure to the blue light which emanates from electronic devices, like cell phones and tablets.
This blue light keeps us alert and active pushing back our natural circadian rhythm. It also delays the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and so keeps us awake longer. The Sleep Foundation explains that the pineal gland in our brain begins to release melatonin an hour or two before sleep. Blue light has a shorter wavelength which delays the release of bedtime melatonin. When we are focused on our digital devices, it takes us longer to fall asleep, our REM or dream sleep is disturbed, and we wake up unrefreshed and tired.
That’s not all.
Melatonin is also released during the night, and blue lights that glow all night can also negatively impact the quality of our sleep.
Therefore it’s important to enforce a personal blue light curfew to go into effect every evening about an hour or two before your scheduled bedtime.
First step – turn off your phone and your tablet.
That isn’t enough.
You are probably surrounded by blue lights.
Your electric alarm clock may have a blue face light.
Blue light is ubiquitous and we are so used to sleeping with our digital devices, our TVs and our electronic alarm clocks we no longer even notice them. But our brain does, and our memory does to their detriment.
QUICK TIP – Remove all electronic devices from your sleep space. Place a small strip of duct tape over the blue light on your TV. Cover your electronic alarm clock with a heavy cloth.
#4 NIGHT LIGHTING
There is still another lighting change to make. If your bedside lamp has a light bulb, make sure it is one that that minimizes the amount of light from the blue end of the spectrum. This will prevent your brain from getting confused should you wake up and turn on the light in the middle of the night.
QUICK TIP – Buy appropriate light bulbs. Go for ones that minimize the blue end of the spectrum for your bedroom and use the kind that allows more of the blue spectrum for your daytime desk and other high activity areas.
#5 SLEEP SOUNDS
You are about to GO PINK (or GO WHITE) to help you achieve that blissful and restorative state of sleep known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep, Science points out that we may need a little help in getting to that specific sleep state, especially as we get older. Deep sleep is the precious sleep that is so crucial for memory. Without it, we are all in danger of suffering age-related memory loss.
Enter, pink noise.
Researchers found that a special kind of sound, audible to us, and synchronized to the rhythm of our brain waves, can help improve our memory and recall ability.
So, what exactly is pink noise?
It’s a sound that has a perfectly consistent frequency.
What does it sound like?
Wonderful. It sounds like the rush of a waterfall, a gentle rain, or a breeze blowing through a leafy tree.
QUICK TIP – Investigate some of the available sound machines that generate white and pink noise (as well as other colors). Plug it in. And enjoy a refreshing and restorative night’s sleep.
Academic studies show that scent and sleep are linked to help produce a night of rest.
In fact, there are many scents that have been known for centuries for their ability to soothe stress, anxiety, cares, tensions, and bring on a state of calmness and serenity.
There is the scent of bergamot which comes from a kind of citrus – somewhat like a cross between a bitter orange and a lemon. Then there is jasmine flower, a deeply scented bloom related to the olive. There’s lemon. And yuzu, a citrus fruit with a beautiful scent. And lavender. So many choices.
Not only does lavender bring with it relaxation, rest, and repose, but its scent stimulates our brain pathways – especially those connected to our memory systems.
You can place a few drops of lavender oil into a diffuser. Or, if you don’t have a diffuser you can put a drop or two of lavender on the very edges of your pillow and another drop on the soles of your feet (check first to make sure you are not allergic or sensitive before placing it on your skin). Climb into bed for a soothing, relaxing night of sleep.
#7 BEDTIME ROUTINE
Sleep experts call this “sleep hygiene.” It refers to one of the most important and comforting few minutes of the day – our bedtime routine. It is the regular ritual of tasks that you perform regularly before going to bed.
Your bedtime routine might consist of checking to make sure all the doors and windows are locked, turning out the lights, brushing your teeth, washing your face, applying a skin cream to your hands or face, placing a glass of water by your bed, or turning down your covers.
But that’s not all. Your bedtime routine could also consist of laying out your clothes for the morning, getting the coffee pot set up, making sure everything you need for work is ready and in a place you can easily find it.
Or, your bedtime routine could be no routine at all. Maybe you crash in front of the TV every night.
Whatever, your bedtime routine is or isn’t it is a significant factor in the quality of your sleep and as such, in the health and strength of your memory.
QUICK TIP – Decide on a few things that you can do to establish a soothing bedtime routine and begin to go through them at least one hour before you plan to be asleep.
#8 PRE-BED PREP
Try to get to bed around the same time every night. About an hour before bed, begin to slowly started to wind down. Start by turning off your digital devices and your television. Mellow the music you are listening to or find some soothing sleepy time tunes that will trigger a neural reminded that it’s almost time for sleep. Switch on your lamps with evening optimized bulbs and perhaps light some lavender scented candles.
#9 BEDTIME SNACK
Whatever your regular bedtime snack, it may be time to switch to snacks that soothe your tired brain and send it gently into dreamland.
Top of the list?
Kiwi. A small study found that volunteers who ate two kiwi fruits before bed slept thirteen percent longer. Why kiwi is such a good bedtime snack is not yet known, but scientists speculate that the sleep benefits of kiwi could be linked to antioxidants and serotonin.
QUICK TIP – Add some kiwi to your grocery list for your new bedtime snack.
#10 BEDTIME STRESS RELIEF JOURNAL & TO DO LIST
This is really two tips, but they are closely related as both have to do with minimizing bedtime stress and soothing nighttime anxiety. If you know your mind will be spinning with all the things you had been bombarded with during the day or if your are going to spend the night worrying about all the things you have to do tomorrow it’s time to take some control. These are stressors. They are anxiety-producers. Time to empty your mind of these toxic thoughts.
Nighttime Journal – Write down your day in a journal. Record the highs. Record the lows. Science tells us that the act of writing could help us to record the events we experienced during the day and that overnight our brain would process them into our memory. But that’s not all that keeping a nighttime journal can accomplish. Any problems or challenges we may be grappling with could be written down and turned over to be tackled by our brain, and maybe even solved, while we slept. The adage, ‘sleep on it’ is more true than we think.
Bedtime To-Do List – Jot down the important things you want to accomplish the next day before you go to bed. Once they are written down, you can stop trying to remember them, and relax and not worry about any items on your to-do list getting forgotten or worse, keeping you up at night.
The effect of simply recording your thoughts and fears, plans and problems, could be like the weight of worry lifted from you. In just a few minutes you could be calmer, less anxious, and feeling more in control.
QUICK TIP – Treat yourself to a fountain pen. This type of pen slows your hand and allows more time for your thoughts on paper, your hand, and your brain to consolidate what you are writing and so strengthening the connection between them.
BONUS TIP NUMBER ONE– TAKE A NAP!
Whether you opt for a 60 or 90 minute mid-day or afternoon nap, or settle for a five or ten minute power nap science shows that your brain and your memory will benefit.
BONUS TIP # TWO – SLEEP ON YOUR SIDE
A research team at Stony Brook University found that sleeping in the side position rather than on your back or stomach may be the more effective position for removing brain waste during the night and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Good night and sweet dreams.
Be encouraged to know that it is possible to get a better night’s sleep. Neuroscience has opened the door to some of the brain’s sleep secrets, and we can all benefit both our bodies and our brains by embracing this new research and making it part of our lives. It made a difference in mine.
Here is a recap of some sleep enhancers.
Understand the risks to your body and brain when you don’t get enough sleep. And the benefits when you do.
Create a sleep-friendly environment.
Write away the stresses and cares of today and jot down the ones you are anxious about tomorrow.
Add a bedtime routine to your life – and don’t forget that bedtime snack!