We know that restorative sleep, which we define as 7-8 hours of consistent rest each night, is crucial for brain health for two reasons:
- Sleep allows for memory consolidation. At night, our brains need to sort all of the information we have received from our environment during the day. This filing system, so to speak, allows our brains to process and categorize information so it is easier for us to recall and retrieve in the future. Studies show that even one night of sleep deprivation can raise the level of beta-amyloid protein, which is the bad protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the cerebrospinal fluid.
- Sleep gets rid of waste products. We all have cleansing ‘janitor cells’ – also known as microglia – in our brains that are activated when we sleep. These cells repair broken areas and rid the brain of waste products. We know that these cells go completely haywire and malfunction when we don’t get enough sleep, disturbing healthy parts of the brain rather than ridding the brain of waste.
It is clear that the long-term health effects caused by poor sleep hygiene and other sleep-related conditions are just as detrimental to your brain as it is to your heart and cardiovascular system. With this is mind, we suggest the following techniques to help you achieve a better night’s sleep:
- Normalize your sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Keeping regular hours helps your brain know when to rest and when to be alert. We evolved to sleep with the fall and rise of the sun. An erratic sleeping schedule interferes with the daily hormonal processes that help facilitate restful sleep.
- Avoid eating late at night. When your gastrointestinal system is working to digest food, you don’t sleep as deeply and are more likely to wake up.
These foods can be especially disruptive to sleep:
- Sugary foods give your body quick energy that interferes with relaxation and sleep.
- High-fat foods can cause indigestion and acid reflux.
- Spicy foods can irritate the stomach and cause acid reflux.
- Chocolate contains sugar and caffeine, both of which negatively affect sleep.
- Avoid certain drinks too close to bedtime. Caffeine can stay in your body for over eight hours. We recommend drinking coffee and other caffeinated drinks no later than 2pm. Other drinks to look out for include:
- Wine (one or two glasses of wine can be relaxing, but more than this will disrupt sleep cycles and often cause you to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom)
- Citrus juices (they can cause acid reflux and irritate the bladder)
- Avoid exercising before sleep but be sure to exercise earlier in the day. A brisk walk in the morning has wonderful effects on your sleep. Getting out into the light helps set your circadian cycles and wakes you up for the day. Exercise has been shown in many studies to increase the depth of sleep. Walking after dinner (ideally at dusk) is also a great option. Your brain reacts to the changing light and naturally prepares for sleep. Be sure to complete exercise – especially intensive aerobic exercise – at least three hours before bedtime.
- Low light at night, bright light during the day. Your brain needs bright, natural light during the day, and softer light at night. If you find it hard to get adequate natural light, light boxes are a great solution. They provide twenty to forty times more light than regular lamps and mimic natural light. Many studies have proposed light therapy as a treatment for seasonal affective disorder and depression, but it can also help with the sleep-wake cycle. Light boxes should always be used in the morning – otherwise they could interfere with your sleep. Use only soft lights in your bedroom at night and turn off electronic devices that emit bright light.
- Avoid playing games, watching stimulating movies and working on your tablet in bed. The idea is to calm the brain, not rev it up. Try reading instead – something enjoyable but not too engrossing. It allows the mind to relax and helps you avoid the blue light in electronic devices that have been shown to interfere with sleep. It’s best to reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex only.
- Avoid napping. For most of us, napping during the day will interfere with our ability to fall asleep at night. We don’t recommend daily naps unless you have a long-standing habit of napping. Even then you should set an alarm so that you sleep no longer than ten to thirty minutes. Anything beyond that can result in sleep inertia, a groggy feeling after awakening that can impair performance. If you’re trying to establish a regular sleeping pattern, we recommend that you stay awake during the day (unless sleepiness could put you or others in danger). You’ll be tired enough at night that you’ll fall asleep earlier and faster, which will help you normalize your schedule.
- Use meditation. Meditation is a wonderful addition to your pre-bedtime routine. This powerful practice physiologically relaxes the body by slowing both breathing and heart rate and has also been proven to reduce stress.
- Sound and light-proof your bedroom. Both sound and light can wake you up and disrupt your sleep cycles, robbing you of the deep sleep your brain requires. Try using white noise or natural soft sounds. If you have consistent loud noise at home (like a neighbour with a baby crying), consider egg-crating the room and insulating the windows and doors. Blackout curtains are great for keeping your room dark.
- Get comfortable. Do you prefer a warm blanket or cool sheets? There seems to be a difference in temperature preference between men and women. Women prefer a slightly higher temperature, men slightly cooler. It is certainly true with the two of us! We use dual blankets (one warmer and one cooler) so we can sleep together and also enjoy our preferred sleeping temperatures.
There are also beds with dual temperature settings, and even pillows designed to maintain certain temperatures throughout the night. Because of hormonal fluctuations throughout the sleep cycle, the temperature pattern for the most restful sleep seems to be:
1) Falling asleep at a temperature just slightly above body temperature
2) The temperature slowly dropping throughout the night
3) A minor rise in temperature before waking up.
- Address dependence on medications. Use these techniques under a doctor’s supervision to slowly reduce your need for medication.
- Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) if necessary. Seek help from a qualified therapist if you are experiencing excessive anxiety or distorted sleep patterns. CBT is most effective for those who still experience anxiety after trying both the relaxation techniques and sleep hygiene techniques. Anxiety that doesn’t respond to any of these techniques may require an initial round of therapy.
- Look for signs of sleep apnea. If you suspect you might have this common sleep disorder, ask your doctor to order a sleep study (this is the only way to know for sure). Review the results and then discuss the best solution for improving your sleep.
Sleep apnea is a common condition that affects more than one billion people worldwide, causing them to stop breathing while they sleep. While sleep apnea is often the subject of many memes and jokes (due to the infamous and conspicuous mask used to treat the condition) it is actually a very serious sleep disorder that can lead to significant health ramifications.
Sleep apnea strikes during the REM phases of sleep, which account for up to a quarter of the time you are sleeping. During this time, most major muscle groups ease significantly, including muscles in your throat. However, if your throat muscles relax too much, your airway collapses and is blocked. The result is obstructive sleep apnea—from the Greek ápnoia, or ‘breathless’. The fluctuating blood oxygen levels triggered by sleep apnea causes plaque to build up in the arteries and causes your heart to race in order to pump blood more quickly to compensate for the lack of oxygen. This can lead to a plethora of negative health conditions including:
- Heart strain
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Weight gain
- Brain damage, including memory loss.
The cumulative, long term effects of sleep apnea can be seriously detrimental to your health. Quartz recently reported that “one study found that people with severe sleep apnea were, all told, three times as likely to die during an 18-year period as those without.” The results of this study are inline with our belief that the lack of adequate, restorative sleep leads to a significant deterioration of health. Specifically, we believe that the damage caused by sleep apnea leads to deteriorated brain health – and deteriorated brain health ultimately leads to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Given the role lifestyle plays in the development of ailments like Sleep Apnea, it’s never too late to address risk factors and seek to improve your overall health.