The Most Fascinating Thing That Happens in Your Brain While You’re Sleeping

It’s directly connected to your mental health.

Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm/ Getty Images
Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm/ Getty Images

Welcome to Thriving Mind, a resource to help you understand your individual signs of stress, take small steps to recharge, and unlock better mental health.

Our decisions shape our days, our lives, and who we are. It’s estimated that we make about 35,000 decisions a day. And it’s safe to say we all want to make the best decisions possible for ourselves, our loved ones, our health, our careers — indeed, for every aspect of our lives. 

So, what if there was a way to help ourselves make better decisions — in ways that improve our physical health, mental health, and our ability to live a more productive and fulfilling life?

There is a way: prioritizing sleep.

To understand why sleep is such a powerful driver of better decisions, we need to look to the brain. In our culture, we often think of sleep as empty or idle time. But in fact sleep is a period of extraordinary and meaningful activity for the brain. Recently, researchers have even discovered that sleep acts as a sort of “flushing out” system for the brain, clearing out harmful waste proteins that build up between its cells — a process that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.  

One particular stage of sleep called deep sleep, or slow wave sleep, is critical for bringing your serotonin levels back to normal, which impacts your decision-making and helps to better manage your stress response in the moment. Neuromodulators like serotonin, dopamine, and others have a significant impact on our ability to effectively manage our emotions and make good decisions. With a good night’s sleep — particularly deep sleep — we wake up in the morning with high levels of serotonin. This is why the morning is such a great time to make your most difficult decisions.

However, if you don’t get good quality deep sleep, you’re likely to wake up in the morning with lower levels of serotonin, which is associated with more risk-averse behaviors and decision-making based out of fear. This can significantly impact our ability to be high performers; if you’re always gravitating toward the status quo, it’s going to be much harder to be creative and innovative. 

When we can’t bring our best selves to work and make critical, in-the-moment decisions for our team, it can impact our confidence, our connection with others and our ability to effectively manage our stress. It can even have a long-term impact on our mental well-being. Even one night of no sleep is enough to alter what is called the brain’s “salience network,” the region associated with decision-making.

To get a good night’s sleep requires good sleep hygiene. Allow about a half hour to prepare for a good night’s rest. This could be in the form of taking a warm shower, avoiding bright light (which will delay sleep onset), not consuming alcohol and caffeine close to sleep onset, etc. If you regularly wake up in the morning feeling tired, it might be a symptom of sleep apnea. If this is the case, it is advisable to speak to your physician, who might prescribe an overnight stay at a sleep clinic. Another common question is, how many hours of sleep do we need? There are indeed individual differences, but the rough rule of thumb is to get five sleep cycles of 90 minutes each, which translates to 7.5 hours of sleep.

So if you want to make better decisions, rise to a higher level of performance, and take care of your brain, commit to getting the sleep you need, every night. Your morning self — recharged, refreshed and ready to take on the biggest challenges and most important decisions — will thank you. 

This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.

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