You spend one-quarter of your life asleep. To be healthy, you need seven to nine hours of shut-eye every night. How much do you get?
If the answer is “not enough” then pay attention, because sleep and dementia are closely linked. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or poor sleep quality, then you are at increased risk for cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Why is sleep so important? One of the main functions of sleep is housekeeping.
When you are awake, every thought you have and every word you speak generates a chemical reaction in the brain. These chemical reactions happen all the time and each time they happen, there is a little bit of chemical waste produced. At night when you sleep, your brain is flooded with waves of cerebrospinal fluid that flush out that chemical detritus. When your sleep is disturbed, this trash removal process does not happen the way it is supposed to, resulting in a buildup of waste by-products in your brain.
This is just one reason that sleep is important. It also reenergizes the cells of your body, supports learning and memory, and regulates your mood, appetite, and libido.
So, okay, we get it: sleep is important. But why do some people sleep well, while others do not? There are two main processes that regulate sleep: circadian rhythms and sleep drive.
Circadian Rhythms & Sleep Drive
Circadian rhythms are controlled by a biological clock located in your brain. This biological clock does things like responding to light cues. It pumps out a hormone called melatonin at night and stops when it senses light.
Sleep drive, on the other hand, is your body’s craving for sleep. In the same way that your body hungers for food, your body’s desire for sleep builds and when it reaches a certain point, you need to sleep.
But what do you do when you have problems sleeping? Is there anything you can do about your circadian rhythms or your sleep drive? Absolutely.
First, avoid caffeine for at least 6 hours before bedtime. The half-life of caffeine is between 4 and 6 hours, so if you have 10 mg of caffeine at 5 pm, you will still have 5 mg of caffeine in your body at 10 pm. This can make sleep difficult, especially if you’re sensitive to caffeine.
Second, avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime. This includes things like smartphones, laptops, and other electronic devices that give off blue light. These mess with your brain’s biological clock, keeping it from producing adequate melatonin. And if possible, leave your phone in another room while you’re sleeping. This will help you avoid temptation if you wake up in the middle of the night.
Sleep is more than just nice-to-have. It is critical for your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
Third, don’t take naps for longer than 30 minutes. Napping for more than 30 minutes during the day can throw off your night’s sleep by decreasing your body’s sleep drive.
Fourth, watch your sugar. Like caffeine, sugar can impair your body’s ability to go to sleep and to stay asleep. Ideally, don’t eat or drink anything besides water or herbal teas for at least two hours before you go to bed. This includes alcohol. This gives your body the chance to rest from its food digestion and sugar processing duties while you sleep.
Fifth, get some sun. Get outdoors before noon every day for at least 15 minutes and leave the sunglasses inside. This helps your brain to regulate your circadian rhythms.
Sixth, give meditation a try. Through meditation, you can learn to access a deep reservoir of inner calm and to control your mind – including the ability to release racing, worried thoughts.
Emotional Process & Release
And lastly, process and release your negative emotions. You may be good at ignoring intense, negative emotions like fear, anger, worry, irritation, and anxiety during the day but if they’re not processed and released, they can catch up with you at night.
A couple of weeks ago, I was really struggling with going to sleep. It wasn’t that my mind was racing. Instead, I had this intense energy that would move and shift in my chest. It would get so intense that it almost felt like a panic attack. So I took my own advice and tried out the artistic process and release technique. The first negative emotion I worked on was anger and a week later, fear. I slept like a baby for several nights after each session.
Sleep is more than just nice-to-have. It is critical for your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. The tips are tools from my own wellness toolbox that I use to regulate my circadian rhythms and boost my sleep drive. I hope they will be useful for you in your own journey.