Updated: Jan 23
Better sleep = a Better Brain
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Good sleep is a fundamental part of a healthy brain program. But many of us don't get as much as we need
Creating and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule can pay large dividends for our sleep quality and brain function
Try to avoid screens in the hour before bed to get your brain ready for good sleep
While alcohol may seem like it relaxes and make us sleepy, drinking before bed can damage sleep quality
Getting good sleep is fundamental for brain health, and may help lower risk of developing cognitive decline and mental health disorders. But the modern world can so easily detract from our opportunities at restful shuteye. Here are 3 lesser-known tips that can help you get better rest, starting tonight!
1. Set and stick to a consistent sleep schedule
Sleep quality plays a massive role in our brain health. In fact, getting better sleep is probably one of the most important things you can do to improve your brain function in a short amount of time. Getting better sleep can be a complex process, so here’s a simple but effective tool to implement today: set a concrete bedtime that you’ll be in bed with the lights out (ideally, that allows for at least 7 hours of sleep) and work backwards from it, and try to stick to this at least 5-6 days of the week.
Research shows that people who stick to a consistent sleep schedule is linked to a wide variety of better health outcomes. For example, in a study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, older adults reporting more irregular sleep habits reported increased daytime sleep and sleepiness, independent of the duration of their sleep. Notably, more irregular sleep was also linked with increases in perceived stress and depression.
How do you actually stick to a more consistent bedtime? Here’s one strategy: after you decide on your goal bedtime, treat it like you would a wake-up time. Set an alarm for 1 hour before bed with a reminder that it’s time to start winding down. Set an alarm for 15 minutes before bed to remind you to get into bed. Make getting into bed (with the lights out) on time your top priority for the evening (this means no in-bed phone scrolling!).
2. Skip the screens before bed
The average American spends 7 hours a day looking at a screen. This shocking statistic is representative of an incredible transition that’s happened over the last decades: our attention is increasingly spent looking at our digital devices. The negative effects of this change are still being actively researched, but one area of relative consensus is that screen time may be the most toxic to our brain health right before bed.
There are two major reasons why our smartphones, computers, tablets and TVs become more dangerous to our brain health when we engage with them before bed. First, our digital devices are often a source of stressful and activating content. When we watch the news or get upset with people on social media right before bed, it may ramp up psychological stress which makes it harder for us to get a good night’s sleep (and subsequently impairs brain function). Secondly, some researchers believe the blue light emitted by our digital devices may impair production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Digital device use before bed has also been shown to have negative effects on deep sleep.
While few of us can stop using digital technologies, all of us can benefit from improving the way we use them. And rather than embarking on a large-scale digital detox, you may get the biggest bang for your buck (especially as it relates to brain health) by simply limiting your exposure to screens in the hour before bed.
3. Avoid alcohol before bed
Alcohol is among most commonly used psychoactive substances on Earth. And while there’s been an ongoing conversation about potential benefits to our health in small doses, research is now more strongly pointing towards an overall negative effect on brain function. One of the most notable correlations between alcohol consumption and brain health relates to sleep.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It has sedative effects that can make people feel relaxed and sleepy. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for people to consume alcohol as a way of winding down into sleep. But here’s the thing: while alcohol may feel like it’s getting us into a good sleep, it’s far more likely that consuming a drink before bed will throw off our sleep cycles and actually impair our ability to get healthy rest. In one study in college students, researchers showed that people consuming larger amounts of alcohol prior to bedtime had trouble staying asleep, woke up more in the night and felt sleepier the next day. In addition, alcohol may worsen symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). All this means that if you choose to drink alcohol, try not to do so right before bed.
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A version of this article I wrote was also published on Psychologytoday.com