9 healthy habits to improve your sleep
Do you often look for ways to increase your productivity, stay healthy, age well and keep your mind sharp? While you’re looking for new ways to enhance your life and work, you may have overlooked the humble but powerful role sleep plays in allowing you to achieve more, feel fantastic and keep your brain strong.
Neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay says, “Sleep is the foundation which all other aspects of brain health are built. One night without good sleep and your brain function drops considerably.” Sleep loss results in a decrease in your ability to focus, make good judgments, regulate your emotions, perform under pressure and be creative.
Sleep not only helps you remember, it also allows you to use this information to solve problems and discover new connections between ideas.
No doubt you would have experienced how hard it is to get through the day when you haven’t had good sleep. If you are a parent, you may remember the brain fog that descends with sleep deprivation during the newborn phase. Sleep is crucial for brain function and wellbeing.
So how much sleep is enough? Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this question. Dr Katharina Lederle explains in her book Sleep Sense, “The amount of sleep each of us needs varies from person to person. It depends to some extent on our genes, our age and when we sleep … about 60 per cent of the adult population need approximately seven to nine hours, while any duration between six and 10 hours can be appropriate.”
However, in his book, Brain Rules, Dr John Medina explains how much sleep is not enough. He reveals, “Studies showed that when sleep was restricted to six hours or less per night for just five nights, cognitive performance matched that of a person suffering from 48 hours of continual sleep deprivation.”
In fact, not getting enough sleep has been connected to accelerated ageing. Dr John Arden in his book The Brain Bible says, “If the body, including the brain, is not allowed to rebuild its resources in response to stress, it breaks down and accelerated ageing occurs. One major way to impair its ability to rebuild its resources is lack of sleep.”
He continues saying, “Researchers have shown that when people were restricted to four hours of sleep per night for six nights, they had lower glucose tolerance, elevated evening cortisol concentrations and increased sympathetic nervous system activity. The effect of sleep debt mirrors the ageing process.”
Based on these studies, it appears that more than six hours sleep is best for your brain to work optimally, while less than that can start to do damage. To find your own sleep “sweet spot”, notice how much sleep you need to feel the most refreshed and energised the next day.
The power of sleep
The importance of sleep goes far beyond feeling refreshed and energised. While you sleep your brain is busy consolidating memories, recharging, healing, repairing and strengthening.
Memory and problem solving
Would you love to have a better memory? Do you fear memory loss as you age? Sleep appears to be important in memory consolidation and the protection of the “memory centre” of your brain.
Studies using rats have shown that when they are taught a new pathway through a maze during the day, the same neural pathways light up when they go to sleep. This finding supports the idea that during sleep your brain “uploads” memories from the day, helping you to retain information and convert short-term memories into long-term memories.
Without sleep, your ability to remember things is impaired. Have you noticed how hard it is to recall information when you are sleep deprived? If you are seeking to enhance your learning ability, ensuring you get good sleep is essential to allow your brain to process and store the new information you are taking in.
Sleep not only helps you remember, it also allows you to use this information to solve problems and discover new connections between ideas. In one study, students were given math problems and shown the method to solve them. Unbeknownst to them there was a quicker way to solve the problems.
Sleep is a truly phenomenal process and is your brain’s inbuilt answer to increasing your productivity, staying healthy, ageing well and keeping your mind sharp.
The study found that when the students were retested after a 12-hour break, 20 per cent of students had discovered the shortcut, while the students who slept approximately eight hours had a 60 per cent success rate. Medina says, “No matter how many times this experiment is run, the sleep group consistently outperforms the non-sleep group about three to one.”
The “memory centre” of your brain, your hippocampus, is also protected during sleep. Getting good sleep helps to regulate one of your stress hormones, cortisol. When you experience sleep loss, your cortisol levels rise. High levels of cortisol have been seen to kill off neurons in the hippocampus.
The devastating effect of hippocampal damage can be seen in people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. By getting good sleep you can keep your stress hormones in check and may be able to protect your brain from future cognitive decline.
Sleep may also further protect your brain from damage, through an amazing “self-cleaning” function that kicks into gear when you close your eyes for the night. During the day while your brain is busy working, a protein builds up. When you sleep, your spinal fluid flushes out these proteins. This “cleaning up” process is important, as a build-up of these proteins in the brain has been linked to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep plays an incredible role in keeping you healthy and your brain strong. While you are asleep your body is busy repairing itself. During sleep your body releases a growth-releasing hormone (GHRH) which helps repair the body, heal bruises and cuts, while also fighting off infections.
On a micro level, sleep also keeps your neurons firing optimally by producing myelin. Myelin is a fatty substance, essential for the electrical messages to pass quickly from neuron to neuron, ensuring that messages get around your brain and body so you can move, think, feel and react.
Do you notice when you haven’t slept well, you feel hungrier the next day and crave sugary foods and carbs? This change occurs because sleep regulates the hormones that drive appetite and cravings. Arden explains that when you are sleep deprived you experience an increase in ghrelin; a hormone that promotes appetite, and a decrease in leptin, a hormone that curbs your appetite.
Not only will you feel hungrier when you are tired, but you will also crave unhealthy foods. Arden says, “Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, even after just one week.” If you’re looking to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, make sure you are eating a balanced diet, exercising and getting good sleep each night.
Sleep is often sacrificed when life gets busy. It’s tempting when faced with a work deadline to stay up late and wake up early to get the work done, but is this really the best approach? The latest in neuroscience shows that an overused and overtired brain is less effective, less efficient and more prone to making mistakes.
How often have you had a bad sleep, gone to work and struggled through the day trying to focus, think clearly and manage the complexity of a workday? It’s not easy. Sleep provides a cognitive break for your brain to recharge. A recharged brain is better able to focus and think clearly, which in turn increases your productivity.
How then can you make more time to sleep and overcome some of the challenges associated with getting a good night sleep?
9 ways to improve your sleep
- Release stress during the day
Do stress and a busy mind keep you awake at night? Managing stress during the day will assist you to sleep at night. You can manage your stress during the day through a variety of strategies, such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, spending some time outside, spending 30 minutes a day doing something you love, venting with someone you trust or externalising your concerns by writing them out. The more you can de-stress from the day the easier it will be to quiet your mind and fall asleep at night.
- Set work boundaries
Do you make a clear transition from work to home? Wellbeing coach Rachel Hodgens says, “There must be a definitive time when work stops and you move into your softer, more gentle and restful side for the evening. One easy trick to make this transition is to change your clothes or have a shower. The literal changing of attire sends a message to the brain that there’s been a switch in environment.”
- Limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine
Is your coffee, tea, alcohol or cigarette consumption keeping you awake? Sleep expert Lederle says, “Caffeine can stay in your system [for] six to nine hours. As a rule of thumb, don’t have more than a couple of cups of coffee per day and no later than 2.30 pm unless you need to be awake during the evening”.
While alcohol may relax you into sleep, it’s also likely to wake you up through the night. For this reason, it is suggested not to drink alcohol at night, or to consume it at least five hours before bed. Similarly, nicotine is a stimulant and is best avoided at least two hours before bed, says Lederle.
- Free up time
Do you find there is so much to do at night that it’s hard to get to bed at a decent hour? To free up some time at night consider getting more organised with your meals. You could cook meals over the weekend and freeze them for the week, create a folder of quick healthy meals you enjoy cooking, or use a food/meal delivery service.
- Plan your day before bed
When you go to bed does the thought of the new day cause you to feel stressed or anxious? Spend some time each night getting ready for the next day — choose your clothes, pack your bag, make your lunch and write your to-do list. If you have challenges to face in the new day, write out the challenge and what solutions are available to you. Having the next day “sorted” in your mind will help you fall asleep more easily.
- Switch off from screens
Are you overly attached to your devices at night? Sleep is regulated by daylight and darkness. Light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleepiness. Blue light is emitted when watching TV and using your devices, which in turn stops the production of melatonin. Sleep experts encourage switching off from devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and TVs one to two hours before bed and using orange-tinted glasses at night to block out blue light.
- Stick to a routine
Do you love a sleep-in on the weekend? Unfortunately changing the time you wake shifts your internal clock and can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Lederle says, “Make sure the time you wake up is regular — within a 30-minute time window. If you do stay up late one night on the weekend, get up the next day no later than 60 minutes after your normal wake up time.”
- Create sleep associations
Do you have trouble unwinding? Creating a night-time habit can help signal to your brain that it’s time for sleep. Choosing activities that promote calm and relaxation are beneficial. For example, you could have a shower just before bed, do some light yoga or stretching exercises, listen to a meditation, use an essential oil on your pillow or read a chapter of a book before falling asleep.
- Work with professionals
There is a real difference between struggling to get good sleep every now and then and struggling on a regular basis. Having difficulty sleeping is incredibly challenging and can undermine your ability to think clearly, feel in control and have the energy you need to get through the day.
Seeking professional help through a sleep expert, psychologist or GP will allow you to find ways to improve your sleep and manage any underlying health concerns you may be having.
Sleep was once thought to be a quiet time for the brain, but it appears this notion is far from the truth. Sleep is a truly phenomenal process and is your brain’s inbuilt answer to increasing your productivity, staying healthy, ageing well and keeping your mind sharp.
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