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Brain Health and Sleep

Sleep Disorders & Problems

Roughly 40 percent of Canadians will experience a sleep disorder during their lifetime. Research has outlined that being chronically sleep deprived raises the risk for diabetes, obesity, heart disease, mood swings, depression, memory problems as well as slowed reaction times. The mere recognition of what is emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted. Everyday life can be perceived in such a way that our ability to sort out more or less important information is disrupted.

Your brain cycles through several stages of sleep, starting with light sleep when brain waves start to slow down from their daytime alertness patterns. Next, you enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where your brain is active and you dream. Scientists believe its during this time that the brain processes what happened during the day, including what you have learned. A few hours later you enter into a period of deep sleep, Non-REM sleep. Your heart beat, breathing and brain waves slow to their lowest levels, which has to last long enough that your brain and body can be refreshed. If this phase is too short or disrupted, then your memory can suffer.

Research by Nedergaard and colleagues describes the importance of sleep on brain health much like a garbage removal system. It was described that when we are awake our brain cells are working very hard at processing all the information about our surroundings, whereas during sleep, our brain is working very hard to remove all the wastes that build up when we are awake. When we do not acquire sufficient sleep, wastes are not flushed out of our bodies and our memory and ability to learn is impacted. Sleep allows the brain to reset, helping integrate newly learned material with existing memories so the brain can begin anew the next day.

To date research demonstrates that the most effective means of improving sleep is through various behavioural strategies including the following:

  • 1) Get regular. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day, even on weekends and days off! This regular rhythm will make you feel better and will give your body something to work from.
  • 2) Sleep when sleepy. Only try to sleep when you actually feel tired or sleepy, rather than spending too much time awake in bed.
  • 3) Get up & try again. If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bright light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something boring like the phone book. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.
  • 4) Avoid caffeine & nicotine. It is best to avoid consuming any caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate, and some medications) or nicotine (cigarettes) for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep.
  • 5) Avoid alcohol. It is also best to avoid alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before going to bed. Many people believe that alcohol is relaxing and helps them to get to sleep at first, but it actually interrupts the quality of sleep.
  • 6) Bed is for sleeping. Try not to use your bed
for anything other than sleeping and sex, so that your body comes to associate bed with sleep. If you use bed as a place to watch TV, eat, read, work on your laptop, pay bills, and other things, your body will not learn this connection.
  • 7) No naps. It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before 3 pm.
  • 8) Sleep rituals. You can develop your own rituals of things to remind your body that it is time to sleep – some people find it useful to do relaxing stretches or breathing exercises for 15 minutes before bed each night, or sit calmly with a cup of caffeine-free tea.
  • 9) Bathtime. Having a hot bath 1-2 hours before bedtime can be useful, as it will raise your body temperature, causing you to feel sleepy as your body temperature drops again. Research shows that sleepiness is associated with a drop in body temperature.
  • 10) No clock-watching. Many people who struggle with sleep tend to watch the clock too much. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up (especially if you turn on the light to read the time) and reinforces negative thoughts such as “Oh no, look how late it is, I’ll never get to sleep” or “it’s so early, I have only slept for 5 hours, this is terrible. ”
  • 11) Regular exercise is a good idea to help with good sleep, but try not to do strenuous exercise in the 4 hours before bedtime. Morning walks are a great way to start the day feeling refreshed! Combining aerobic exercise with meditation and yoga can be a powerful combination to improve sleep and improve brain health.
  • 12) Eat right. A healthy, balanced diet will help you to sleep well, but timing is important. Some people find that a very empty stomach at bedtime is distracting, so it can be useful to have a light snack, but a heavy meal soon before bed can also interrupt sleep. Some people recommend a warm glass of milk, which contains tryptophan, which acts as a natural sleep inducer.
  • 13) The right space. It is very important that your bed and bedroom are quiet and comfortable for sleeping. A cooler room with enough blankets to stay warm is best, and make sure you have curtains or an eyemask to block out early morning light and earplugs if there is noise outside your room.
  • 14) Keep daytime routine the same. Even if you have a bad night sleep and are tired it is important that you try to keep your daytime activities the same as you had planned. That is, don’t avoid activities because you feel tired. This can reinforce insomnia.
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Finally, Master Minfulness! Research demonstrates that relaxation techniques, yoga and meditation can help significantly with controlling thoughts and emotions that stop you from getting adequate sleep.

Given that these are behavioural strategies and they need to be consistently utilized, the duration required to see notable improvements in typically over the course of several months. However the good news is that once the changes are made, the improvements can be significant and long lasting. Getting adequate sleep is like pruning a tree or emptying the trash, it leaves room for new growth and creates space for fresh ideas and new things!

Laurent Pinci
Laurent Pinci
Pillars of Wellness is a truly Integrated Healthcare Centre providing a high degree of collaboration and communication among health providers.