Enhancing Brain Health – Sleep and Memory
By Dr. Rob Winningham
Approximately 50% of older adults suffer from sleep problems or insomnia, and this can negatively affect their memory ability, quality of life, and mood. In a 2007 study, researchers found that if people miss just one night of sleep, their ability and likelihood of recognizing things they had seen since the sleepless night decreased from 86% to 74%. One might therefore infer that insomniacs who didn’t sleep much the night before would have approximately a 12% reduction in their ability to make new memories. Others researchers have found that the ability to have sustained attention is affected by lack of sleep. Chronic sleep problems increases the chance of becoming obese, impairs mood, and might even shorten one’s life expectancy.
Sleeping medications certainly have their place, but while they often help people fall asleep, there is evidence that they negatively affect the quality of sleep. But the good news is that there are effective non-pharmacological interventions to enhance sleep. Below you will find many of the so-called sleep hygiene recommendations.
- Keep regular hours.
- Exercise everyday but not in the evening. Stretching and moderate exercise in the morning seem to be most beneficial in decreasing how long it takes to fall asleep and how long people stay asleep.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol after dinner; it will impair the quality of sleep.
- Take a nap during the day to increase daily sleep. This recommendation is different from what has been suggested during the past 30 years, but new research shows it generally increases total daily sleep duration and quality of night sleep.
- Get more exposure to natural light during the day.
- Avoid nicotine and caffeine, both of which are central nervous system stimulants.
- Try to unwind in the evening by doing things that relax you (e.g., meditation, reading, warm bath, etc.).
- Don’t go to bed starved or stuffed.
- Don’t associate the bedroom with wakefulness. Don’t eat, drink, or watch television in bed. If you can’t go to sleep, then get up and do something else besides worrying about not going to sleep.
- Don’t ruminate in bed. If you have thoughts you would like to remember, write them down and stop thinking about them.
- Use the ultradian cycles to predict optimal times to sleep. Our ultradian cycle causes us to alternate between higher and lower levels of alertness every 90 minutes. If you naturally wake up at 7:00 a.m., then waking up at either 6:15 a.m. or 7:45 a.m. would be challenging based on your ultradian rhythm. Similarly, if you are very tired at 10:00 p.m., you might be more awake at 10:45 p.m. and then maximally sleep at 11:30 p.m. Use this rhythm to time the best time to go to sleep or wake up.
- Reduce lights when preparing for sleep and thus increase melatonin release.
- Be sure to make the sleeping environment as comfortable as possible (e.g., bedding, temperature, etc.)
- Make sure the sleeping environment meets your standards of tidiness.
- Try to reduce noise exposure during the night.
- Engage in mindfulness meditation.
If you want more information about sleep and brain health, you can find a six part sleep and memory series that I wrote. Click here to view those short articles.