Sleep Your Way to a Smarter Brain

sleeping woman smiling

Sleep is one of life’s enduring mysteries. But as anybody who has tossed and turned all night may understand, getting enough shuteye is crucial for good health. Did you know that it’s especially important for brain health?

Sleep and your brain

“Sleep is absolutely instrumental in cognitive function, mental acuity and the ability to concentrate and learn new things,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor at Columbia University in New York City.

During sleep, your brain deals with information received during the day. It consolidates memories and clears plaque-forming amyloids and tau proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“There’s a cleanup process that happens in brains when we sleep,” St-Onge said. “There’s a pressure to sleep, and when you do, that pressure gets dissipated and that’s how you feel fresh in the morning.”

REM sleep, or the dreaming phase of sleep, has been shown to enhance learning, memory and emotional well-being.

Sleep disruptions affect your levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, which may make it more difficult to think and regulate your emotions.

“If you have long sleep but it’s fragmented, you’re interrupting the sleep cycle,” St-Onge said.

Sleep can affect mental health

Sleep problems may increase the risk of developing certain mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. And addressing sleep issues can help improve mental health conditions.

“Sleep impacts your health and all bodily systems,” St-Onge said. “There is genetics and there is environment. Sleep is part of the environment that allows your genetic makeup to shine.”

Insomnia, or the inability to sleep, is even more harmful to brain health and is being studied more closely as an underlying condition contributing to a wide range of health conditions.

Take action to improve your sleep

St-Onge recommended the following steps to get better sleep.

  1. Practice good sleep hygiene. Make your bedroom or sleeping space as comfortable, quiet and dark as possible.

  2. Banish bright light from lamps, TVs, cell phones and other electronic devices. “Bright light will suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that gets your body to fall asleep,” St-Onge said. “Turn off the TV, so your melatonin can rise naturally and you can have a good night’s sleep without any help.”

  3. Skip the stimulants. Although young people may be able to handle a cup of coffee in the afternoon, she noted, that may change as they age. “Make sure the effects of caffeine have worn off before you go to bed,” St-Onge said.

  4. Avoid consuming alcohol too close to bedtime. “Alcohol is a sedative, but once it’s metabolized by your body, it creates arousal and you may have more broken sleep,” she said.

  5. Don’t eat heavy meals before bed. While a light snack may be OK, a large meal may trigger acid reflux. “Your body processing the nutrients may also disturb sleep,” St-Onge said.

  6. Don’t rely too much on sleep aids, which can be addictive. Even melatonin supplements shouldn’t be used regularly, St-Onge said. “They may help you for a short period, but you need to make sure you’re able to wean off of them,” she said. “The goal is to sleep naturally.”

According to St-Onge, we should prioritize sleep the same way we do other healthy activities such as exercise and diet.

“We ask people to be active on most days of the week, not cram on the weekends, and it’s the same thing for sleep,” she said. “Having adequate sleep every night is really helpful to brain health.”


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