Sleeping improves brain health
If you have trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. At least 50% of my patients complain about not getting enough sleep, and I’d wager that that’s on par with the rest of the country. Even I confess to not getting enough sleep sometimes.
What’s the culprit? It’s hard to say. There are so many things that could be keeping us awake at night—our age, diet, medications, stress. I know some of these are big obstacles to overcome, but the long-term health problems that go hand-in-hand with sleep problems are even scarier. So please read on and I’ll show you the best ways to reverse this dangerous trend of sleeplessness, starting tonight.
Effects of Sleeplessness
Insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders have wide ranging effects on your physical and mental health. A person who does not sleep well on a regular basis is at a higher risk for weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, a depressed immune system, mood disorders, and more.
Further, that fuzzy brain feeling you experience in the morning isn’t just something a jolt of caffeine can fix. That’s your brain literally slowing down and weakening.
Allow me to break it down further. When you make an everyday decision—ordering from a menu, for example—your brain cells are communicating with each other via bursts of electrical activity. According to a study published in Nature Medicine, sleep deprivation slows the rate of those bursts and weakens them as well. So it’s no coincidence that your morning routine feels “off” if you haven’t gotten enough sleep. It’s even worse if you are having a non-routine morning, when you can’t count on your “autopilot” tendencies to carry you through.
The same study showed that these mental lapses can affect not only your perception, but your memory. It also found evidence that sleep deprivation affects some areas of the brain more than others. And that leads me to Alzheimer’s…
Sleep and Alzheimer’s
A 2013 sleep study showed that when you sleep, your brain shrinks a little bit. That sounds like a bad thing but it’s quite the opposite. What’s actually happening is that the cerebrospinal fluid—the clear liquid between your brain and skull—enters your brain and washes out the amyloid plaques.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, amyloid plaque is a sticky substance that accumulates in the brain. It’s a trademark feature of people with Alzheimer’s because the plaque obstructs or shuts down the pathways of communication linking different sections of the brain. I don’t have to spell out for you how this can play out over the course of years of chronic sleeplessness. Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Wash your brain daily! It’ll help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that you’re up partying until all hours of the night when you should be sleeping. Even if you’re doing everything right—watching your caffeine intake, going to bed at a reasonable hour, exercising during the day and not eating too close to bed time—sometimes you just get a crummy night’s sleep.
But…before you go reaching for that drug store sleep aid…
Dangers of Sleeping Pills
I don’t have enough fingers to count the dangers of taking sleeping pills. First, long-term use causes dependence, which means you’ll need to take higher doses over time to get the same effect. Higher doses often mean you’ll have stronger side effects, such as memory impairment. Sleeping pills have also been linked to life-threatening behaviors like driving while sleeping. Imagine taking a sleeping pill and waking up with your face buried in your car’s air bag! Not worth it.
Second, according to a 7.5-year-long study recently published in the British Medical Journal, people who combine anxiety medication with sleeping pills had “a significantly increased risk of mortality” in that time period.
There are piles of research on the side effects of sleeping pills, but I think that a key point gets lost within the conversation. It’s not often that researchers talk about what sleeping pills really are—sedatives. Sedation isn’t sleep. Sure, your eyes were closed for 8 hours when taking a sleeping pill, but the body and brain aren’t recharging nearly as well as if you slept naturally for that same amount of time. Only by getting real sleep will you reap the benefits of sleep.
6 Easy Tips to Get More and Better Sleep… Naturally
Sleep problems come in all shapes and sizes—everyone’s situation is a little different. It could be your busy schedule, “night owl” personality, situational stress, chronic anxiety, medications, etc. Maybe you have trouble falling asleep. Maybe you can fall asleep no problem, but you have trouble sleeping soundly through the night—waking up periodically.
Whatever is keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, there are a variety of techniques to get more and better sleep without taking sleeping pills.
- Exercise: Exercise naturally tires your body, which in turn needs rest to recover. A tired body allows you to slip into slumber more easily with deeper rest. And you don’t have to sweat buckets to benefit from exercise. Even just 10-15 minutes of brisk walking, on a daily basis, can make a big difference in your sleep quality, especially if you currently don’t exercise very much.
- Healthy Diet: Sugar and stimulants impede your body’s ability to rest. So do common food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame, and casein. So I suggest you avoid any and all processed foods, and instead eat healthy, organic foods whenever possible. I also suggest avoiding caffeine and other stimulants after lunch. By removing these foods from your diet and replacing with healthier options, your body will be more balanced and able to sleep better. For example, eating more fiber not only aids digestion, it also helps regulate blood sugar levels, allowing your body to rest. Finally, avoid eating 2 to 3 hours before bedtime so those blood sugar levels stay low.
- Put Away Devices: The amount of time you spend in front of your phones, tablets, TVs, and computer screens (especially in the evening) disrupts your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone your body releases to help you sleep. Melatonin is released as skies darken, but if you are in front of screens, surrounded by artificial light, late into the evening, your body doesn’t release as much melatonin because it’s confused as to what time it is. Try avoiding any unnecessary screen time for 1-2 hours before bed time. If you’re at a loss for what to do without the tv, try listening to something, reading on paper, or using your phone to talk instead of Facebook.
- Mindfulness/Meditation: Meditation teaches your body to develop a relaxation response. Just 15 minutes of daily quiet time will help build your mind’s “meditation muscles” that you can flex during the nights you have trouble sleeping. When you meditate, it’s vital that you eliminate distractions—no TVs, no devices, low lights—so you can communicate with yourself and concentrate on deep breathing.
- Commit to a Sleep Schedule: This strategy isn’t talked about very often because it cuts to an uncomfortable truth at the root of our sleeping problems. We’re too busy to sleep. Or at least, we think we’re too busy to sleep. If you have a hard time “finding” the time to sleep, I suggest you make it. “How?” you ask. You must realize that you are in control of your schedule, not the other way around. Therefore, set your bed time in stone and prioritize it. Aim to go to bed at the same time every day for two weeks. After one week, I’ll be willing to bet that you’ll feel the difference throughout your body.
- Supplements that Aid Sleep: Natural sleep aids tend to be far more beneficial than anything you’ll find in a drug store. They’re typically cheaper and come with few, if any, side effects. Start with melatonin, 1 milligram about 30-60 minutes before your preferred bedtime. If 1 mg doesn’t get the job done after a few nights in a row, you can try 2 or 3 mg. L-theanine is another great one. It’s the amino acid in green tea that makes the tea so soothing and calming. Try 200 mg 30-60 minutes before bed. Studies have shown that hops and lemon balm can also help people fall and stay asleep. Talk with your doctor about which can help you best based on your needs.
Better Sleep = Better Health
Dr. Oz once said that sleep is a barometer for your emotional health. I take that a step further to say that sleep is a barometer for your overall health. Better sleep equals better health. If you struggle with getting enough sleep, chances are that it’s leading to several other health problems—if you’re not already there. By making sleep a priority, you are making your brain and body a priority. And I can’t think of two other things that I need more to get through my busy days!
- Hamilton, Jon. “Sleepless Nights Leave Some Brain Cells as Sluggish as you Feel.” NPR. Published Nov. 7, 2017.
- Hamilton, Jon. Lack of Deep Sleep May Set the Stage for Alzheimer’s. NPR. Published Jan 4, 2016. Accessed Jan 27, 2017.
- Wanjek, Christopher. “Sleep Shrinks the Brain–and That’s a Good Thing.” Scientific American. Published Feb. 3, 2017.