How’d you snooze last night? According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, probably not as well as you should have. Seventy million Americans have sleep problems and 35 percent of us get fewer than seven hours of sleep a night. Most of us know that a few good zzz’s sharpens the mind, fortifies immune function and builds up metabolism. But new research shows that quality shut-eye is vital to your brain’s long-term physiological health because the brain cleanses itself of harmful toxins during healthy sleep. Read on to learn how a good night’s rest could be the most important thing you can do to live a long, healthy—and successful—life.
SLEEP TIGHT EVERY NIGHT
The fact is, pretty much everything you do gets better as one of the benefits of sleep—and current research proves it:
• A study from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke confirms that deep, restorative healthy sleep cleans toxins from the brain, which may enhance memory;
• A Stanford University study found that better sleep is associated with improved athletic performance, measured not only by higher energy levels but also by the performance of athletic tasks (such as faster running times);
• Catching your forty winks helps stave off weight gain, according to a study in the journal Sleep;
• Last, but certainly not least, research in The Journal of Sexual Medicine shows that an extra hour of snooze-time leads to higher levels of sexual desire (and a 14 percent increase in sexual activity the day after).
“Sleep is the one-third of our lives that affects the other two-thirds,” says Dr. Safwan Badr of Wayne State University Physician Group and former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Sleep well, live well.”
That formula starts with a healthy mind, and nothing is more essential to the brain’s physiological health and everyday maintenance than healthy sleep. As you wander through the land of Nod each night, your brain is busily cleaning up—and restoring itself—after a demanding day of managing bodily functions, problem-solving and thinking. Individual brain cells, just like those in the rest of your body, produce waste as they work—including beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s. Throughout the day, that debris gets tossed into the brain’s interstitial space, a fluid area between tissue cells that takes up about 20 percent of the brain. During sleep—let’s call it cerebral downtime—the brain flushes out that interstitial space through a network of channels, using watery cerebrospinal fluid (which is produced in the ventricles of the brain).
Consider it your nighttime cleaning crew—and the only way they can effectively get their job done is when you’re closed for business and the halls are empty. Left unchecked, those mental dust balls and piles of cellular rubbish can result in everything from occasional loss of concentration and lack of alertness to more serious neural degeneration and dementia. If you spend too many nights burning the midnight oil, your brain’s janitorial team drops the mop and starts to miss some of the corner cobwebs.
For most of us, the optimal sleep time for peak cognitive performance during the day is about seven hours of uninterrupted slumber per night—meaning without sleep apnea, pain, insomnia or other restless symptoms. (A recent study in The Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep apnea impairs short-term memory because it disrupts REM sleep.) And while it’s tough to imagine a downside to getting more healthy sleep, too many extra hours in the sack can lead to issues with memory, decision-making and put you at a higher risk for health problems such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, one study showed that people who had sleeping habits of more than eight hours per night had higher death rates than those who only got six or seven hours.
Sleep is the one-third of our lives that affects the other two-thirds. Sleep well, live well.
SNOOZE—AND YOU CAN'T LOSE
Unfortunately, when it comes to ways to sleep better, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. But you can take some simple steps to find out what works best for you. First determine how many hours of sleep you need each night. Experts suggest running a trial for three days to a week, ideally while you’re on vacation so you’re not facing demands from work and other daily obligations. Go to bed when you’re tired and wake up naturally—sans alarm clock. Cut back on caffeine and alcohol, and shut down your electronics (which produce light, cause distraction and stimulate alertness) a few hours before bed. Record your nightly sleep time in a journal or use a wearable device that measures the length and quality of your sleep based on how you move at night. If you feel awake and energized during the day, you’ve probably hit your optimal sleep time.
Next consider some of the ways you can improve the quality of your sleep—even if you are one of the lucky few who’s never been up sending emails at three in the morning:
Try technology: “Wearable devices aren’t just for tracking anymore; they can actually provide therapeutic benefit as well,” says Dr. Shai N. Gozani, founder of NeuroMetrix, a health care company that develops wearable technology such as the Quell—a band that straps to your upper calf and stimulates nerves to relieve chronic pain and aid sleep. “Users can receive therapy in increments throughout the night and then track their sleep over time to gauge improvements or adjust nighttime therapy as needed,” says Gozani.
Other devices work directly on the brain. For example, the Sleep Shepherd—a hat developed by professor Michael Larson at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs—promotes sleep by sending out specialized, rhythmic tones that help slow down your brain waves, a natural part of the process as you fall asleep.
Some studies show that performance is degraded when you lose sleep, but if you pay back some of the debt you can resume your previous ability to perform.
Chill out: Research suggests that the ideal room temperature for sleeping is 65 degrees. Cooling your body acts as a signal that it’s time to sleep.
Get hot, go cold: For the same reason that cooling signals sleep, an extreme change in temps—going from a hot shower to a cooler room—speeds up the biological message of hibernation.
Eat more nuts and leafy greens: Research associates increased levels of magnesium with higher healthy sleep quality. In addition to almonds, cashews, kale and spinach, add avocados, yogurt, bananas and dark chocolate to your diet.
Let the sunshine in: Go for a walk or take a call (or two) outside. One study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that people with exposure to more natural light during the day slept 45 minutes longer every night than those with less exposure.
Pay yourself back: If you scrimp on sleep one day, deposit those lost hours the next night. Long-term lack of sleep is harmful, but in the short term you can make it up. “Some studies show that performance is degraded when you lose sleep, but if you pay back some of the debt you can resume your previous ability to perform,” says Larson.
The point is that sleep, like diet, exercise and your career, requires a strategy to help you figure out what will improve your specific situation. Instead of thinking of sleep as a default position, embrace it for the tangible rewards and benefits you’ll experience now and in the long run. Make sure you get the nighttime rest and quality recovery you need, and you’ll be stronger, smarter and better equipped to achieve your goals and successfully live the life you want.