Back to Basics: Why Sleep is the Clean-Up Crew for Your Brain

In less than a day, sleep deprivation spurs system-wide biochemical changes which, over weeks, months or years, can significantly impair our health, cognition and mood. Don’t stress if you’ve had a rough night, or even a few strung together — the weekly trend is what’s important to monitor. Moreover, restorative sleep can repay the debt. Here is the story and the science.

Now that you know the science, here’s how sleep is important for daily life:

  • Immune System: During sleep our immune system regenerates, allowing our bodies and brains to heal. Strong immunity helps us fight viral exposure, and if sick, reduces severity and accelerates recovery.
  • Metabolic Health: When sleep deprived, our primal evolutionary brain yells “I must be starving, I need food now!” Inadequate or poor sleep increases levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone,) decreases leptin (the hormone which tells us when we’re full) and sends cortisol (the stress hormone) up, which over time increases blood sugar and insulin. This faulty signaling drives food cravings — if you’re home-officing in the kitchen — watch out!
  • Mental Health: Sleep improves our ability to reframe, or gain perspective (e.g. pause, reflect and label!) and can thereby reduce anxiety and depression. In our everyday lives, and particularly when under duress, our brains can trick us into catastrophic thinking and spiraling rumination. In the COVID-19 crisis, stress and anxiety are running high, so it’s more important than ever to control the things that we can. Remember: Name it to Tame it!
  • Cognitive Efficiency: While we sleep, the hippocampus, a key brain center for learning and memory, operates like a file transfer mechanism — integrating, organizing and consolidating information from the day. It is also the first area of brain function to show strain after a rough night. Sleep also synchronizes our “connectome,” the neural wiring that integrates our left and right hemispheres with our higher and lower brain centers, fostering cognitive malleability, reflection, creativity and deep learning.
  • Physical Health: Sleep is one of best insurance policies there is. It heals the body by decreasing inflammation, reducing risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and just about every other major disease we struggle with in the developed world.

Here’s what you need to know to create a personalized wind-down routine:

  • At dusk, turn off or dim unnecessary light
  • Stick with decaf after 2 pm
  • Cool down your room, ideally to 65–68 degrees
  • Finish eating 3 hours before sleep. If you have to eat, choose protein over carbohydrates, which can elevate core body temperature and impair sleep.
  • Limit alcohol consumption and opt for water or decaffeinated tea 3 hours before bed
  • NO screens in the bedroom — charge electronics elsewhere:
  • Take a warm bath or shower (moves heat to the surface and lowers core body temperature — good for sleep!)
  • Try gentle relaxation exercises: stretch, light yoga
  • Meditate: breathe slowly, in and out, and quiet your mind
  • Journal: jot racing thoughts onto paper and out of your mind
  • Practice gratitude: reflect on 2 or 3 things and write them down

More from Turnaround on this topic:

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Turnaround for Children

Turnaround for Children

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org