In a study using mice, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), researchers demonstrated that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours. Almost every neurodegenerative disease- including Alzheimer’s- is associated with the buildup of toxic proteins in the brain. Researchers speculate that it is the accumulation of these proteins that can kill neurons and lead to dementia. So, if the brain cleanses itself of toxic molecules during sleep, that makes sleep even more essential to brain health.
Sleep helps the brain consolidate learned experiences and transform weak memories that might fade in time into more permanent ones. The last hour of sleep may be the most important, mainly because it is usually the last hour of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. A study done by James B. Maas revealed that people generally need six and a half to seven hours of sleep, and if we get less, it can negatively affect our learning, problem-solving, and memory. A similar link between sleep and learning was found by Robert Stickgold of Harvard. Participants in his study who slept after training performed better on tests of learning and memory than did participants who were not allowed to sleep that night and subsequently failed to retain what they had learned.
Sleep is not only beneficial to memory, but to health in general. During sleep, your body produces cytokines, which are essential to fighting infection, stress, and inflammation.
Here are some suggestions to help you get quality sleep:
- Make sure you are getting to bed at a reasonable time; schedule it on your planner if necessary.
- In addition to making the bedroom dark and quiet, try wearing socks to bed.
- Determine your brain’s tolerance for caffeine; perhaps you need to reduce or eliminate caffeinated beverage consumption earlier in the day. This goes for chocolate as well. L
- Regular exercise can give you those endorphins that relax you and help you sleep. In addition, exercise can make you tired enough to sleep. But don’t do vigorous exercise right before retiring.
- Make sure that, if you snore and/or suspect you may have sleep apnea, you discuss this with your physician, who may order a sleep study.
- Try to be consistent in the time you go to bed and get up each day.
- Focus on your breathing, taking deep breaths while inhaling and exhaling slowly. If you can focus on just your breath, other thoughts will not enter your mind, allowing you to relax and hopefully fall asleep.
- Try aromatherapy with a lavender scent.
- Go through a progressive muscle relaxation routine. Tense and then relax muscles throughout your body, beginning with your feet and working up to your head.
- Visualize being in a place of tranquility- an open meadow, a beach with waves gently lapping the shore, etc. This can slow brain wave activity, helping you to fall asleep.
- Avoid anything that energizes or wakes you up too close to bedtime, including vigorous exercise, video games, or even suspenseful books.
- Try to get light early in the day; a study showed that people whose office had access to windows got more environmental light, which was associated with better sleep quality and mood.