Get Better Sleep
The Importance Of Sleep For Brain Function & How To Make Your Shut-Eye Count
Your mind and your body are inextricably linked. That is obvious.
Your ability to think clearly, to focus, to remember, to learn, to deal with your emotions; all this ultimately relies on your brain’s ability to function properly.
Or to put it another way, your cognitive function is in many ways reliant upon your physical health.
A healthy brain is an effective brain.
If you are trying to maximize your cognitive performance, boosting your learning abilities or your mood, then ensuring your brain is in top condition should be your first step.
With that in mind, let’s talk about sleep.
There are few variables more able to influence your mental and physical health than your sleeping patterns.
Fail to get enough sleep, and the consequences can be severe. Psychotic episodes can happen if people don’t sleep for a prolonged period of time. Chronic sleep deprivation can increase your chances of developing things like heart disease, depression, and more.
On the flip side, getting too much sleep seems to have its own (if slightly less dramatic) consequences.
Why is it that getting 10 hours sleep can sometimes leave you feeling just as groggy, fatigued, and unfocused as you feel after 5 hours?
Some recent studies actually suggest that getting more sleep than you really need can even decrease your lifespan!
The amount of sleep you get, and the quality of that sleep, clearly has profound physical effect on you.
It also quick clearly has a massive effect on your cognitive capabilities.
Too little sleep, or sleep of a very low quality, can wreak havoc on your mental faculties.
A restless night can deplete your focus, destroy your motivation, and ultimately reduce your mental performance for an entire day.
If anxiety keeps you up before a big meeting, an important exam, or just any day at the office if you’re running a business, then a lack of sleep can be seriously costly.
In this article, we’ll look at the ways in which sleep actually affects your cognitive function. We’ll examine what happens while you sleep, how that affects your health, and how it influences your mind. We’ll talk about how you can make sure your sleeping patterns work for you. We’ll then go through some tips for getting better quality sleep.
If you have any specific questions, please don’t be afraid to post them in the comments section at the end. We always try to get back to people within 48 hours.
How Important Is Sleep?
Sleep is unbelievably important.
You might hear plenty of successful people bragging about how little sleep they get.
You come across people who cling to little catch phrases like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”; “no rest for the wicked”; “time is money”, and so on.
This might all sound impressive, but skimping on your sleep over the long term will inevitably take its tole on your health, both mental and physical.
We’ll start with the physical effects of not sleeping enough.
Several studies have examined the effect of skimping on sleep to varying degrees.
This study, published in 2005, highlighted how chronic sleep deprivation causes reduced physical and emotional well-being. Here, researchers noted that “bodily discomfort showed a slight, but significant inter-individual increase of 3% across days of sleep restriction due to significant increases of generalized body pain, back pain, and stomach pain.”
Another study, published in 2006, found the following:
“Less visible consequences of sleep conditions are far more prevalent, and they take a toll on nearly every key indicator of public health: mortality, morbidity, performance, accidents and injuries, functioning and quality of life, family well-being, and health care utilization. Some of these consequences, such as automobile crashes, occur acutely within hours (or minutes) of the sleep disorder, and thus are relatively easy to link to sleep problems. Others—for example, obesity and hypertension—develop more insidiously over months and years of chronic sleep problems. After decades of research, the case can be confidently made that sleep loss and sleep disorders have profound and widespread effects on human health.”
That’s a pretty convincing conclusion.
It is difficult to argue with such conviction shown by eminent researchers.
When we look at the literature on this, we see a wide range of physical problems people regularly encounter when they go without sleep for even a single day:
- Loss of appetite
- Irritable bowels
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased stamina
- Decreased strength
Pretty serious right? Well these are just the mild problems associated with sleep loss. You will experience these when you skip a night or two of good sleep. But what about a more chronic problem?
Chronic sleep depravation can significantly increase the risk of developing serious physical problems:
- Heart disease
- Injury from accident
On top of this, the development of certain types of cancer is thought by some to be exaccerbated by sleep depravation.
The severity of the effects very much depend on the extent of the sleep deficit, how long it has been going on for, and individual circumstances (stress, diet, etc).
However, these negative health consequences seem to be very consistent across the board.
If you go without sleep for a day, you are highly likely to experience some of these negative effects.
If you go without sufficient sleep for many days, or even years, then you are likely to experience some of the more serious ill effects.
But the physical consequences of sleep depravation are just the type of the iceberg.
Going without enough sleep for just one night can severely impair your cognitive function.
Fail to get at least 6 hours of good, restful sleep, and most people will experience one or more of the following:
- Lack of focus
- Low mood
- Slow reaction time
- Difficulty taking in information
- Decrease in verbal fluidity
- Loss of libido
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means.
A few nights spent tossing and turning, or watching the clock, can really reduce your cognitive functioning.
However, as with the physical effects of not getting enough sleep, the mental effects can become a lot more serious than mere forgetfulness or lack of focus.
Chronic, severe sleep depravation can have a dramatic, potentially destabilising effect on your mental and emotional health.
Getting very little sleep, or not sleeping at all, for a number of consecutive nights has been known to cause:
- Memory loss
- Wild mood swings
- Psychotic episodes
Indeed, the longer you go without sleep, the more severe the consequences for your mental health. Chronic sleep depravation can easily become chronic depression, chonric anxiety, or chronic paranoia.
Lack of sleep is even thought to make nightmares more likely.
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be that sleep is something to be taken very seriously.
It is just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to ensuring good health and longevity.
If anything, it is perhaps the most important aspect within your control.
But making sure that you get enough sleep is one thing.
Making sure that you get GOOD QUALITY sleep is quite another.
What does this mean?
To answer that, we need to look at what happens when we sleep.
Sleep Quality – What Happens When We Sleep
To explain the idea of “sleep quality”, we need to first explain the sleep cycle.
Our sleeping patterns are strictly controlled by something called our circadian rhythm.
This is essentially a hormone release cycle of about 24 hours in length. This is what makes you tired at certain times of day, and wide awake at other times of day.
While they are endogenously (i.e internally) generated, the circadian rhythms of all animals can be greatly influenced by external factors, such as food timing, environmental stimulus, and climate (or time of year to be precise).
In humans, the circadian rhythm is pretty uniform throughout the year, and it is governed by a couple of hormones. However, don’t confuse simplicity for impotence.
First thing in the morning, your body gives you a sharp cortisol spike to wake you up. Cortisol is your stress hormone; it triggers quick energy release, appetite, and other bodily functions. Your body slowly starts releasing cortisol throughout the night, and levels peak between 7am and 8am for most people.
Your levels of insulin and ghrelin will also be tightly controlled during sleep, ensuring that you wake up feeling hungry (unless you take measures to suppress this effect of course).
Your cortisol levels quickly dissipate, allowing your sex hormone levels to rise during the day.
Throughout the day, assuming you are exposed to daylight in some way, you will begin to feel increasingly awake and alert from about 9am onwards.
As the afternoon turns to evening and daylight gradually diminishes, your body begins to release melatonin; the hormone responsible for making you feel sleepy.
Melatonin release is triggered primarily by darkness. It is produced in the pineal gland in the brain.
Your melatonin levels will typically start increasing rapidly from 8pm onwards, making you feel sleepier and sleepier.
Your melatonin levels will sharply rise and peak at about 2am. They will plateau at very high levels between 2am and about 5am.
The presence of melatonin stimulates the release of Human Growth Hormone. This is an incredibly important hormone. It plays a role in lipolysis, tissue repair, and muscle growth. Growth hormone levels peak between 1am and 4am, showing a clear symbiosis with melatonin.
Your melatonin levels will then fall sharply between 5am and 7am, reaching bottom by 8am.
The cycle then repeats.
So what has this got to do with sleep quality?
Well, melatonin (and maybe HGH) plays a clear role in the regulation of something called rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep for short.
Technically, REM is instigated by the release of acetylcholine and ended by the secretion of serotonin. However, melatonin levels seem to be very important for allowing REM to occur.
REM sleep is so called because during it your eyes move around rapidly. REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep you will experience.
REM occurs in bouts. Your first bout occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep, and will last about 5-15 minutes. Each bout gets longer, and you eventually have about an hour stint of REM sleep, usually between 2am and 4am, when melatonin levels are highest.
REM sleep is incredibly important. This is the most rewarding, restorative stage of sleep. This is where your body does the majority of its repair work. It is also when your brain is most active.
During REM sleep, your brain consumes much more oxygen than when awake. In fact, it seems to consume more oxygen during REM sleep than it does when working on a highly complex problem.
It is during REM sleep that you usually dream. this might be why your lose all motor ability during REM sleep; to stop you acting out your dreams and potentially hurting yourself!
But you might now be wondering, why should I really care about any of this? What does REM sleep actually do for my cognitive function?
The Brain During REM Sleep
As stated above, REM sleep is the most restful, restorative stage of sleep.
It is during REM that your brain is most active, and it seem to be doing some very important things during these incredibly deep bouts of sleep.
First of all, there is clear evidence that a lack of REM sleep inhibits cognitive function.
This study looked at REM Sleep Behavioral Disorder and how it affected cognitive impairment in people with Parkinson’s Disease. The researchers concluded the following: “RBD in PD is associated with a more impaired cognitive profile and higher MCI diagnosis frequency, suggesting more severe and widespread neurodegeneration.”
A longitudinal study, published in the journal Sleep, found that “the decline observed in some tests involving the memory and visuo-constructional domains in idiopathic [REM Behavior Disorder] suggests the presence of an underlying evolving degenerative process.”
This article discusses how clinicians found people with a REM sleep disorder to be twice as likely, yes that’s TWICE AS LIKELY, to develop either cognitive impairment or Parkinson’s Disease.
With such a clear link to degenerative diseases and cognitive decline, the importance of getting enough REM sleep should be quite clear.
This is what we mean by the quality of sleep.
It isn’t enough to simply get your 8 hours of shut-eye in each night.
You really need to make sure that you are getting enough REM sleep in particular. This means getting a good few bouts of deep, regenerative sleep each night.
Most healthy people will spend 15-25% of their sleeping time in REM sleep. In order to stay healthy in the long term, it seems vital that you get at least 1 hour of proper REM sleep per night. Ideally, you’d get about 2 hours of deep REM sleep per night.
But staving off cognitive decline is just one reason to care about REM sleep.
Missing out on REM sleep seems to have more immediate consequences for your cognitive function.
One thing we need to talk about here is the REM sleep memory consolidation thesis.
The idea here is that many of our memories, barring procedural memory, is codified and consolidated during REM sleep.
However, as this literature review points out, the evidence here is “weak and unproven”.
One thing that does seem clear though is that the theory was a reasonable one to put forth. Missing out on REM sleep does negatively impact cognition, almost immediately.
As this article outlines in great detail, deep sleep is absolutely vital for proper learning and overall mental performance.
It seems that deep sleep gives your brain a chance to rest certain areas of the brain, while utilizing high HGH levels to repair brain cells such as neurons.
People who have been deprived of sleep have been found to perform worse mentally pretty much across the board.
As stated in this paper, “First and foremost, total [Sleep Deprivation] impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. Partial SD is found to influence attention, especially vigilance.”
Even partial sleep deprivation seems to have a negative impact on focus, concentration, and as a result, learning.
Missing out on REM sleep can therefore leave you unable to properly focus the next day. If your job requires you to be on top of your game mentally each and every day, then even a single night of no deep, high quality sleep can be very costly.
How To Get Better Sleep
Well, by now we hope that you are sold on the importance of getting enough sleep. We hope you’re also sold on the importance of getting good quality sleep.
But that doesn’t mean you know HOW to get enough sleep.
You may be none the wiser when it comes to improving the quality of your sleep.
So, what do you do?!
Well, luckily there are some really easy things you can start doing to help you get more sleep.
There are a number of habits you can start forming today which can help get your sleeping patterns right on track for maximum mental and physical health.
There are some supplements you can use to try and improve the quality of the sleep that you get, making it more restive and conducive to optimal cognitive function.
We are going to list a number of “hacks”, to use a labored term, that you can start using to help you get more, better quality sleep today. The list is in no particular order:
- Don’t eat for 2 hours before going to bed (insulin suppresses HGH release)
- Try to form a bedtime ritual
- Try to go to bed within 15 minutes of the same time each night
- Don’t drink any caffeine after 5pm
- Clean your bedroom
- Exercise more frequently
- Stop looking at a screen at least an hour before you plan to go to bed
- Don’t take any naps
- Evaluate your mattress and pillows; try to find the right combination for you
And here are a list of supplements that you may want to try if you struggle to get to sleep at the right time, or if you think you could use more deep, restful, brain boosting REM sleep:
- Valerian Root
- Lavender oil (to be applied to pillow)
- Rhodiola rosea
- Herbal teas containing chamomile
Again, this list is in no particular order. We aren’t saying that these substances all work the same way, nor that they will all produce results for everyone. They are simply natural substances you may want to check out to help with sleep.