As a health coach, one of the first things that I ask my clients about is their nightly sleeping habits. In truth, I am often surprised by the lack of importance that many highly intelligent people give to a good night’s sleep, often thinking of it as a waste of time. This couldn’t be more off the mark. In fact, it is during our nightly 7-9 hours of sleep that we have the best recuperation capacity, which is essential for our health and well-being.
Our need for sleep and repair/rebuilding is ever patent by the typical tiredness we feel when we demand a lot of our brain and body through thinking and/or exercise. Besides repair, the brain resets overnight, allowing us to digest are readjust our thoughts. There is a reason for the phrase “Sleep on it, and you’ll see things differently in the morning”, as our brain cleans up while we sleep.
Of course, it is normal to have a bad night’s sleep sometimes, but like with everything else, it is what we do as part of our routine that counts. Before getting into the science of sleep and the brain, here are some useful tips from the sleep foundation to help improve sleep quality. Take a look to see which one(s) can be useful for you to incorporate in your daily life:
1. Try and maintain a schedule for bedtime and waking up time, even on weekends. This helps your body regulate its circadian rhythm (clock) which in turn can help you get a full night’s sleep.
2. Incorporate a relaxing ritual to your bedtime, far away from strong lights and noises. This helps to separate active time from sleep time and reduce anxiety and stress. Relaxing before bed helps you sleep better and wake up less during the night.
3. If you are not getting a good night’s sleep, avoid taking naps, especially after lunch time. Even if you think naps are keeping you energetic during the day, it is more important to sleep a full good night’s sleep and naps can take away from this.
4. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Cardiovascular exercise is the best, but any kind of physical activity will help you get a good night’s sleep.
5. Optimize your sleeping quarters. Your sleeping environment should be at a relatively low temperature (between 16-19 °C) and not have any strange or irritating noise that can impede or interrupt your sleep.
6. Use comfortable mattress and pillows which provide good support. Make sure your mattress is still within its lifetime, which is approximately 9 to 10 years for a good mattress. Comfortable pillows not only make a beautiful bed, they invite you to a good night’s seep. Make sure that there is no dust (dust mites) which can disrupt your sleep on your bed linen, mattress and mattress cover, or pillows.
7. Being exposed to strong light during the day can help set your circadian rhythm. Ideally, try to expose yourself to sunlight in the morning to maintain/set your internal clock and avoid strong light after sunset.
8. Alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine (including chocolate or tea), or heavy meals at bedtime often disrupt the quality of sleep. Although heavy or very spicy meals eaten less than two hours before bedtime can cause indigestion and discomfort at night, some people find that an empty stomach can also keep them awake. If this is the case, a small snack about 45 minutes before bedtime can help you sleep through the night.
9. Relax. Your body and mind need to get into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before going to bed doing calm activities like reading. If you are having a tough time getting enough sleep or sleeping through the night, avoid contact with electronic devices for at least one hour before going to bed.
10. If you are like me, I have the greatest “haha moments” in the middle of the night. This means that whenever something is puzzling me or bothering me, I wake up can’t get back to sleep until I have somehow resolved whatever it is that woke me. This is ok if it is not happening too often (less than 10% of the time). Whenever I do wake up thinking, I deal with it… without getting frustrated… In fact, I often get out of bed and write whatever is occupying my brain and not allowing me to get back to sleep before cuddling up in bed and falling back into dream land.
As a biologist and health coach, I truly believe that knowledge is power and that we naturally make the best (healthiest) choices based on knowing the science… which brings me to the science of sleep. Although it has been repeatedly shown that a good night’s sleep has a key role in muscle repair and synthesis (adaptation to training), especially if combined with a high protein pre-bed snack, I am going to focus on the science of sleep and the brain.
The human brain is an incredible organ, and there are many highly intricate reasons why it needs for us to spend about a third or our lives in a non-wakeful state. Sleep is vital for us, having essential roles on learning and memory acquisition (1) as well as being necessary for dealing with negative or traumatic events (2). Although it weighs approximately 1.5 kg, which is 2.5% of a person weighting 60 Kg, it uses 25% of the body’s energy daily.
Brain function results in the production of a significant amount of waste, including protein aggregates similar to those that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson and dementia. In fact, it has been estimated that the brain produces its own weight in waste per year. To get rid of this waste, it has recently been shown that the brain has its own plumbing system, called the glymphatic system (3). The glymphatic system uses cerebrospinal fluid, the brain’s vascular system and specialized brain cells (glia cells called astrocytes) to carry waste products out of the brain and into the body.
Importantly, the process of brain waste disposal is significantly more efficient when we are asleep, as the sleeping state modifies our brain and increases in space between brain compartments. In other words, the brain needs to drain and it does so mostly when we sleep at night. In fact, it has been proposed that the accumulation of protein aggregates in the brain of Alzheimer patients may be linked to the disturbed sleep often described by these patients long before disease onset. Also, reduced time sleeping and sleep disturbance may be associated with dementia in the aged.
The bottom line is, getting enough sleep is extremely important for our proper functioning and sleeping 7-9 hours a day is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. So if you are like me and have a tendency to think too much at night and not be able to sleep 7-9 hours, look at the tips above and, as they say in Portuguese, boa noite e bons sonhos!
(1) Tucker MA et al. 2011. To sleep, to strive or both. PLOS ONE, 6: 7e21737
(2) Stickgold, R. 2015. Sleep on it! Scientific American. October 2015
(3) Jenssen NA et al. 2015. The glymphatic system: a beginner’s guide. Neurochemical Research 40: 2583
Book: The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington