Table of Contents:
- The importance of sleep for your brain
- Different kinds of sleep
- What affects the quality of your sleep
- 9 tips for better sleep and overall brain health
There comes a time in a person’s life when age begins to make things more complicated. Whether that is physical activity or mental responsiveness, we all slow down as we grow older, and the lifestyle and activities we once enjoyed are now in the past. One of the main contributors to a graceful aging process is the quality of sleep an individual gets over the course of their life. If sleep is not carefully monitored and managed, sleep problems can affect your quality of life and overall health long before the twilight years.
In theory, sleeping should be something natural that shouldn’t require much effort, but it is not always like that. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets. So, how can you remedy this widespread problem and wake up feeling rested and ready for the day?
In this article, we will go through the basics of sleep, how it affects brain function, the reason why you might be struggling, and nine tips to help you achieve better rest.
The importance of sleep for your brain
Sleep goes far beyond just resting and recovering. Sleep helps detox your brain, enhance brain connections, and protect against brain aging.
Studies show that poor sleep can increase your chances of long-term brain degeneration. A review published in the acclaimed journal Nature shows several neurotransmitters that become affected in sleep alterations. Poor sleep has metabolic effects that slowly undermine normal brain connections, weakening your capacity to learn, recall, and execute higher brain functions. Moreover, the researchers showed that improving your sleep may also improve your brain health in the short term (1).
The association between poor sleep and amyloid plaques is bidirectional. In other words, poor sleep induces the formation of amyloid plaques which contributes to poor sleep, and the process repeats. That is one reason why a lack of sleep is a progressive ailment that worsens over time (2).
But what is the recommended amount of sleep? The answer depends on your age and varies with your physical activity levels and other variants. Most adults have a recommended range of sleep between 7 and 9 hours. Older adults are okay with 7 to 8 hours. In general, it should be more than 7 hours, but we all have different needs and sleep patterns (3).
Different kinds of sleep
You have probably heard about REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is a deep stage of sleep where most dreams occur. But this is only one stage of sleep in a cycle that repeats over the course of the night. According to research, there are four stages of sleep, and the brain acts differently in each. These include(4):
Stage 1 or N1:
It is a very light sleep where you still feel partially awake. In this stage, the brain’s alpha waves are replaced by low-amplitude waves (Theta waves). It lasts up to 5 minutes as you transition to deeper sleep.
Stage 2 or N2:
It is a slightly deeper sleep where your body temperature and heart rate drop. Brainwaves show a transition and start to produce delta waves. It lasts around 25 minutes.
Stage 3 or N3:
This is a deep sleep stage where your brain waves are at their slowest. They are known as delta waves. In this stage, you’re less likely to wake up with environmental noise. If you awaken during this stage, you will experience significant mental fogginess.
In this stage, your eyes move very rapidly, and it is the stage of sleep where most dreams occur. The length of this phase becomes longer as you continue sleeping.
You cycle through all of these stages around 4-6 times in a single night, with each cycle lasting 90 – 120 minutes. Ideally, you should wake up after one cycle is completed. If you wake up in the middle of a cycle, you will feel exhausted regardless of how many hours you slept.
What affects the quality of your sleep?
If sleeping is so easy in theory, why do people struggle night after night? One of these factors could be involved:
It is not a coincidence that sleep comes at night when all the lights are turned off. Sunlight is the primary source of blue light, and exposure typically comes from being outside during the day. Once the sun sets and blue light is reduced, your brain starts to naturally produce the hormone melatonin, which induces a state of sleepiness. Interestingly, blue light at night inhibits melatonin release and interferes with sleep (5). There are artificial sources of blue light everyone should be aware of, like televisions, phones, and computers.
Diet and eating too late:
You’re less likely to fall asleep if you suffer from painful medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or migraines. Sleep apnea and other ailments may also interrupt or obstruct your sleep.
If you are taking medications, you should check for adverse effects. Some of these medications have insomnia listed as a side effect. But even if you’re not taking prescribed medications, other substances may also contribute to poor sleep like caffeine, smoking, alcohol, especially when associated with high levels of stress (7).
Travel and shift work:
It is typical to experience sleepless nights after traveling abroad or if you’re engaged in shift work. With jet lag, there is a desynchrony in our inner clock, where the brain and body are out of sync. In the case of shift work, although you’re not traveling abroad, you’re still experiencing something called social jet lag when your work schedule demands you to work at night, and you tend to sleep for many hours during the day (8).
Where you sleep also plays a critical role. Most of us have had problems falling asleep in new places. It feels uncomfortable when you’re not in your bed, and you can’t relax your body and mind. Environmental noise, unwanted light, and other factors may also be involved with poor sleep.
Nine tips for better sleep and overall brain health
What can you do to recover your sleep? If you’re struggling with sleep frequently, these nine recommendations below can help you improve sleep quality today:
Control blue light during the day AND night:
As noted above, blue light modulates melatonin secretion. In turn, melatonin favors sleep and synchronizes with our biological clock. Thus, blue light can be used in our favor by increasing it during the day and reducing our exposure at night. Some apps have been developed to minimize blue light on computers and smart devices, but it would be even better to turn these devices off completely 1-2 hours before bedtime. If this is too difficult, another idea is purchasing blue light glasses to reduce your exposure at night (5). (Blue light glasses)
Watch portion control and don’t eat late:
Overeating and eating late can have an adverse effect on sleep quality. Thus, it is wise to limit the amount of food you eat at night before bedtime. A very light dinner favors sleep by allowing for smooth and effective digestion. Also, think twice about that dessert after dinner. The sugar contained in most desserts is enough to spike a person’s glucose, making the transition into a sleeping state more difficult. Instead, as an after-dinner treat, look for options to soothe your body and mind, like drinking herbal tea infusions (6).
Keep caffeine to a minimum and only in the morning:
Caffeine stimulates the nervous system making us feel alert and awake. That’s why some people can’t start their day without a cup of coffee. However, if you’re having sleep problems, it is recommended to limit yourself to drink a cup or two only in the morning.
Keep alcohol to a minimum:
One or two glasses of wine can help you relax and promote sleep. However, combining alcohol and high levels of stress is not a good idea. It can contribute to feeling anxious and not sleeping at night when we’re going through difficult times (7).
Don’t take very long naps:
Napping is a healthy habit if you do it properly. Sleeping for 20 – 30 minutes in the afternoon is fine, but a 1-2 hour nap is not a nap anymore. Completing a sleep cycle and reaching a deep sleep stage is not a good idea. It has the potential to desynchronize your internal clock and delay night sleep (9).
Keep your sleeping time consistent:
One strategy that works for most people is keeping a consistent sleep schedule. Waking up at the same hour every day regularizes sleep and promotes easier control over your sleeping hours. When sleep becomes a habit, your body goes with it and complies.
Exercise has numerous benefits, even when you’re finally resting at night. It reduces anxiety levels, prevents depression, and reduces your energy levels, making you feel drowsy and tired when you go to sleep. Altogether, all of these reasons make exercise an excellent habit to help recover healthy sleep (10).
Optimize bedroom environment:
Feeling relaxed is fundamental to getting sound asleep. If you can control the ambient light, room temperature, mattress, and sheets, you can design your sleeping space to fit your personal needs. You may not be able to control everything, though. We recommend using a bedtime ritual to slow down and prepare your mind to rest. Something like going to your room, dimming the lights, and reading a book has been shown to have positive effects on your sleep. Infusions, scents, and other stimuli can also help you optimize your bedroom environment.
Sleep quality is vital to maintain good health as we age. The brain needs deep sleep to eliminate toxins, clear the pathways between nerves, and strengthen brain connections.
However, sleeping can turn into a problem when such a natural function becomes a prolonged struggle night after night. If you’re having difficulties resting at night, you should try the nine suggestions we give above to see if you can find some immediate relief.