Do you think you got enough sleep last night? Can you recall the last time you woke up without needing an alarm clock and actually felt refreshed, not needing coffee? If the answer to either of these questions was “no” then you’re not alone. Roughly 66% of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep (Both ‘The World Health Organization’ and the ‘National Sleep Foundation’ stipulate an average of eight hours sleep per night for adults).
I doubt you’re surprised by this fact, but you may be surprised by the consequences. Regularly sleeping less than six or seven hours can have profound effects on your brain.
Sleep is far more than the absence of wakefulness. Our nighttime sleep is an exquisitely complex, metabolically active, and deliberately ordered series of unique stages. Numerous functions of the brain are restored by, and depend upon, sleep, with no one type of sleep accomplishing all. Each stage of sleep – light NREM sleep, deep NREM sleep, and REM sleep – offer different brain benefits at different times of night. Thus no one type of sleep is more essential than another.
Losing out on any one of these types of sleep will cause brain impairment. Of the many advantages sleep confers on the brain, the benefits to memory are especially impressive, and particularly well understood. Sleep has proven itself time and again as a memory aid: both before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting.
Sleep before learning refreshes our ability to make new memories. It does so each and every night. While we are awake, the brain is constantly acquiring and absorbing novel information (intentionally or otherwise). Passing memory opportunities are captured by specific parts of the brain. For fact-based information – or what most of us think of as textbook-type learning, such as memorizing someone’s name, a new phone number, or where you have parked your car – a region of the brain called the hippocampus helps apprehend these passing experiences and binds their details together. A long, finger-shaped structure tucked deep on either side of your brain, the hippocampus offers a short-term reservoir, or temporary information store, for accumulating new memories.
Unfortunately, the hippocampus has a limited storage capacity, almost like a camera roll, or to use a more modern-day analogy, a USB memory stick. Exceed the capacity and you run the risk of not being able to add more information or, equally bad, overwriting one memory with another: a mishap called interference forgetting.
In order to stop interference forgetting, your brain needs to clear space for new memories within your hippocampus – and this happens while you sleep. Sleep restores the brain’s capacity for learning, making room for new memories.
A study by Matthew Walker, a British scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology, analyzed the electrical brainwaves of test subjects while they napped. The memory refreshment was related to lighter, stage 2 NREM sleep, and specifically the short, powerful bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles. These are sudden bursts of oscillatory brain activity generated in the reticular nucleus of the thalamus that occur during stage 2 NREM sleep. The more of these sleep spindles a person obtains during sleep, the greater the restoration of their learning when they wake up. Matthew found that as they observed and analyzed the sleep-spindle bursts of activity, he observed a loop of electrical current pulsing throughout the brain that repeated itself every 100-200 milliseconds. These pulses kept weaving a path back and forth between the hippocampus, with its short-term, limited capacity storage space, and the much larger, long-term storage site of the cortex. This electrical transaction occurring during the secrecy of sleep shows the shifting of fact-based information (from the hippocampus) to a long-term storage site (the cortex). In doing so, sleep had delightfully cleared out the hippocampus, replenishing this short-term information repository with plentiful free space, allowing the individual to awake with a refreshed capacity to absorb new information within the hippocampus, having just relocated yesterday’s imprinted experiences to a more permanent safe hold (analogous to the transferring of data from a low-storage USB to a high-storage hard-drive).
So, in conclusion, your brain is designed to use sleep – specifically around 8 hours-worth of sleep per night – in order to build memories and ensure you’re ready to absorb new information the following day.
Tips on Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
- Stick to a strict sleep schedule: You should create a sleep schedule, and stick to it! Aim to set a bed-time and wake-up time that you can follow each day, ensuring it allows you to get the recommended 8 hours sleep per night. You can even set an alarm for bed-time if required.
- Don’t exercise too late: Exercise is great, and you should ensure you’re getting at least 30 minutes per day, but it’s also important to time your exercise correctly. Try to time your exercise so it’s no later than 2-3 hours before your set bed-time (Remember Tip 1!)
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine: Coffee, teas, cola drinks, and chocolate all contain caffeine, which is a stimulant that can have an effect on your sleep, even if they’re consumed in the afternoon. Trying to cut this down/out can improve your sleep, allowing you to feel better rested and get a good night’s sleep. Nicotine is another example of a mild stimulant, and smokers will often wake up earlier than they would otherwise, due to nicotine withdrawal.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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