Smart Sleeping: 9 Tips for Better Sleep and Brain Health

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Are you getting enough sleep — or maybe too much? How long you sleep each night could determine how quickly your brain ages, a study says.

Researchers from Great Britain found that middle-aged adults who slept less than six hours each night — and more than eight hours — are more likely to experience cognitive decline.

“There is an expectation in today’s 24-hour-a-day society that people should be able to fit more into their lives,” study author Jane Ferrie, from University College London Medical School, told HealthDay News.

“The whole work/life balance struggle is causing people to trade in precious sleeping time to ensure they complete everything they feel is expected of them. Our study suggests that this may have adverse effects on their cognitive function,” she said.

For the study, which was published in Sleep, researchers looked at the data of 5,431 men and women, aged 45–69, who had taken part in a long-term study known as the Whitehall II study. Participants were asked how many hours on average they slept each night and if these sleep patterns had changed over a five-year period. They were also given a battery of standard tests to evaluate memory, reasoning, vocabulary, global cognitive status and verbal fluency.

Sleeping smart: The magic number

Women who slept 7 hours per night had the highest score for every cognitive measure, followed by those who got 6 hours of snooze time, the study found. For men, the findings were slightly different: those who reported sleeping six, seven or eight hours had a similar cognitive function.

For both men and women, however, getting less than 6 hours or more than 8 hours of sleep each night were associated with lower mental performance.

While it is widely acknowledged that sleep is important for the brain to restore and revitalize itself, it is still not understood why seven hours of sleep is optimal for most people, or why longer sleeping seems to be detrimental, Ferrie said.

Other risks of a sleep-deprived lifestyle

Better brain health is not the only reason to get a good night’s sleep. Not only can sleep deprivation affect mental alertness and cognitive abilities, it can have an effect on our physical and psychological health as well. Poor sleep can increase the risk for obesity and diseases such as diabetes, experts say. Studies have also shown that people with a sleep-deprived lifestyle are less satisfied with their lives overall — and getting a good night’s sleep has also been associated with better longevity.

9 Tips for better sleep

1. Set a schedule and stick to it. Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Disrupting this routine may interrupt your inner ‘circadian clock’ and lead to insomnia. While ‘sleeping in’ on weekends may seem like a treat, it can make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning because it re-sets your sleep cycles for a later awakening.

2. Watch what you eat. The general rule is: Don’t eat for at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime. Eating too much may make you less comfortable when settling down for bed. It is best to avoid a heavy meal and spicy foods too close to bedtime.

3. Watch what you drink. Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, which acts as a stimulant. This includes coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and non-herbal teas. Alcohol tends to keep people in lighter stages of sleep, robbing them of deep and REM sleep. (Smokers also tend to sleep lightly and often wake up early because of nicotine withdrawal.)

4. Get regular exercise. Try to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day. Keep in mind, however, that while daily exercise often helps people sleep, a workout too soon before bedtime may actually interfere with sleep. In addition to making us more alert, our body temperature rises during exercise, and takes as much as 6 hours to begin to drop. Since a cooler body temperature is associated with the onset of sleep, it is better to finish your exercise at least 5 to 6 hours before going to bed.

5. Establish relaxing rituals. Leave the day’s stresses behind with a warm bath, reading or another relaxing activity. Avoid arousing activities before bedtime like working, paying bills, engaging in competitive games or family problem solving.

6. Make your room sleep-friendly. Select your mattress, pillow and bed linens carefully for maximum comfort. Maintain a sleep-friendly temperature in the bedroom, usually between 18-21°C (65-70 degrees F). (Extreme temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep.) You may also wish to consider using blackout curtains, eyeshades, earplugs, ‘white noise,’ humidifiers, fans and other devices. Install soft lighting in your bedroom and bath. And when reading in bed, consider using a book light.

7. Try deep breathing. If you have trouble falling to sleep, try this relaxation exercise: take deep, slow abdominal breaths, and if possible, inhale through your nose. Even if your mind is a muddle of thoughts, try to focus on the flow of your breathing, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Count your breaths, and when you get to 10 start over again.

8. Don’t just lie there. Generally it takes about 20-30 minutes to fall asleep. If you still can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie in bed. Instead try reading, watching television, or listening to calming music until you feel tired. The anxiety of being unable to fall asleep can actually contribute to your sleeplessness.

9. Rise with the sun. If possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep.

Finally, see a doctor if your sleeping problems continue. If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively.

Sources: HealthDay News; Journal SLEEP, May1 issue; U.S. National Sleep Foundation; National Institute on Ageing; National Institutes of Health; Mayo Clinic