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Brain Health Breakdown: SleEP

Sleep affects every aspect of our physical and mental health, yet we know woefully little about it. Sleep was still considered a “dormant state” in the 1950s. Thankfully, we know better now.
Much of our waking lives are dependent on sleep. For example getting enough sleep is tied to weigh loss, cognitive performance and cardio-vascular health. That’s why we’ve assembled this information about sleep so you can rest easy! What is sleep?

Briefly, sleep is the body’s rest cycle [2]. But really, it is so much more than that.
We sleep in 5 stages. They are known as stage 1 through 4 and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. You may be surprised to know that our brains are highly active through most of the night. As we sleep longer and longer, we progress through the stages until REM kicks in, which is when we dream. As we progress through the stages, the delta waves our brains produce slow down and the restorative aspect of sleep is multiplied. For feeling rested, stages 3 and 4 are the most important. In the final stage of sleep, REM, we reach our “shallowest” sleep, where our breathing and heart rate quicken to near waking levels, and our brains become more active.[10][12]

Why do we sleep?

One hypothesis is that we feel drowsiness during the day because a chemical called adenosine builds up in our blood. Adenosine has a negative effect on the efficiency of neurons and chemical neurotransmitters. Sleeping breaks down adenosine, which is why when we wake up we feel rested. This is also why, when we don’t get enough sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt, or a build up of adenosine, to be paid off in full when our systems finally crash. People can grow accustomed to losing sleep, but reaction time, judgment and other capacities will not recover until a normal sleep schedule is resumed. [10]

​Does being under anesthesia count as sleep?

People are said to be sleeping when they are under anesthesia (or are in a coma). This is not accurate. People in these states do not produce the patterns in brainwaves that sleeping people do, in fact their brainwaves are almost undetectable. [10]

​Why does being sick make me tired?

Interestingly, the flu and other illnesses can make you sleepy. This is because cytokines, the proteins used in immune system response, interact with the neurons that affect sleep and sleep-related neurotransmitters. This means that when you’re fighting an illness your brain is receiving powerful sleep signals. Cytokines are also present in physically inflamed areas, explaining the fatigue you experience after an injury. [10]

​How much sleep do we need?

As we age we need less and less sleep each night. An infant requires 16 hours, teenagers should get about 9 or 10 hours and adults should get between 7 and 8. Seniors tend to sleep even less. [10]

Why do we need sleep?

Sleeping is vital to our survival. Mortality rates increase dramatically as sleep deprivation builds. No death has been directly tied to a lack of sleep but we can see in cases of long term sleep deprivation from sleep apnea, insomnia or other sleep disorders, that risk of heart disease, attacks and failure, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes is increased.[4][5]

When adenosine builds up in our system, our capacity for normal function is diminished, and our bodies’ ability to cope with stressors is diminished. As long as we are drowsy, our judgment, reaction time, and other corporeal operations (such as the immune system) are impaired. [4][5]

The regions of the brain that control emotions, decision-making and social interactions are dark during sleep. As sleep deprivation continues, math gets harder and eventually hallucinations and mood swings develop. These observations imply that sleep is needed for the normal functioning of day-to-day neural activity. To drive home the point: Approximately 100,000 car accidents, and 1,500 related deaths every year are attributed to driver fatigue. [4][5]

How do Traumatic Brain Injuries affect sleep?

Sleeping can be a more difficult proposition for people with TBIs. Up to 60% of people with brain injuries have life-long difficulties with sleep. The area of the brain that has been afflicted combines with the lack of sleep further exacerbates injury-related behaviors and poor cognition. The brain controls chemical messengers that make you drowsy and that tell you when to wake up. Brain injury can inhibit these functions, causing difficulty falling asleep, followed by post-traumatic hypersomnia which is a condition where people sleep far longer than normal.[13][14]

There are a number of sleep conditions that arise more often in TBI survivors: Restless Leg Syndrome, Bruxism (the grinding or clenching of teeth at night), Periodic Limb Movement disorder and sleepwalking. [13][14]

Luckily the same practices that help uninjured brains sleep, also help injured brains! Our tips for better sleep are in the next section.  


How can we sleep better?

Getting more sleep isn’t easy, especially with our hectic modern lifestyles and our global addiction to caffeine. Our diets and medications affect whether we feel awake or drowsy and the quality of our sleep.[10] It’s important to know what’s what, so we did the legwork for you and have included some best practices for sleep:

 The most common sleep supplement is a nightly Melatonin tab, which is the chemical our brain produces when its time to go to sleep and to keep you asleep. The production of this chemical is often inhibited by screen usage after dark and irregular sleep schedule. Doctors still warn against overuse as side effects are still largely unknown, and many supplements contain high dosages that potentially build up in the body. [10][7]

Chamomile Tea is a common sleep remedy that is often recommended in winter months. [1] Studies show it lets you sleep better at night and helps alertness during the day.
Not every sleep problem is solved with medications or “natural” supplements. Sometimes the best way to get more sleep is to be more mindful with your sleep routine:

Evaluate your Sleeping Space:  Design your room to be the ultimate sleeping space. Set the temperature between 60 and 67 F, insulate/isolate yourself from sleep disturbing noises and lights. Get blackout curtains or a sleep mask, earplugs or a white noise machine and a fan, AC, or air purifier.[11]

Remove Technology: Turn off, silence and store your technology that might make sound or light. Throughout the waking day we condition ourselves to respond to stimuli from our phones and computers. That unconscious response continues during slumber.[11][6]

Sleep in Comfort: A quality mattress and comfortable pillow that are supportive can make all the difference. Decent mattresses last up to 9 to 10 years and many people sleep on them well past that lifetime. Make sure to do your research and find the right mattress for you. Do your best to remove allergens as well; keep your bedding clean.[11]

Maintain a Sleep Schedule: Your bedtime and wake up time should be the same every day, including weekends. Our bodies didn’t evolve to alternate between two different sleep schedules; it’s no wonder that we have trouble sleeping with these double lives. Keeping your internal clock regular makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.[11]

Develop a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: It’s beneficial to do an activity you find relaxing that your mind can associate with sleep. Just make sure you’re away from bright lights, loud noises and activities that excite or stress the mind.[11]

Do Not Nap: It might make you feel better in the short run, but it won’t help you get to sleep at bedtime.[11]

Exercise Daily: The harder the better, but anything is better than nothing. Exercise anytime, but don't cut into your sleep schedule. Building muscle and getting aerobic exercise has been shown to improve sleep, and boost alertness during the day. The weekly cardio goal should be to reach 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.[3][11]

What is bad for sleep?

Much of what we do during our modern day-to-day lives is bad for sleep. We are consuming new technologies, foods and chemicals every year and their effects on our sleep are an after thought, or wholly unknown. Here’s a brief list of things to avoid or moderate to get better sleep.

Caffeine: Drinks and drugs like coffee, tea, and diet pills are stimulants that prevent sleep.[11]

Nicotine: Heavy and late night smokers are more likely to experience shallower sleep and reduced amounts of REM sleep.[11]

Alcohol: People have been drinking nightcaps for a very long time. However the sleep that you do get from drinking robs you of the restorative stages of sleep, 3 and 4, as well as REM sleep.[11]

Stimulating Activities: Activities that get your heart pumping, or your blood boiling make it harder to fall asleep. Avoid playing competitive video games, or even having stressful conversations.[6]

Technology Addiction: A person with a technology addiction feels anxiety or stress as time away from a device increases. This directly interferes with sleep.[6]

Blue Light: Our bodies produce Melatonin, a hormone that makes us drowsy. This process starts when blue light dims with the sun. Looking at screens reduces the production of these sleep chemicals and can be responsible for trouble falling asleep. There are ways to filter out blue light on your devices at night making it easier to sleep.[6][7]

Anxiety: It is easy to allow your thoughts to race out of control at night. We’ve all been there; you can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about that project or that text you shouldn’t have sent or that one time you embarrassed yourself in 3rd grade. That’s why we recommend practicing mindfulness exercises and meditation when you just can’t clear your head.[6]

Stress: Sometimes stress is so pervasive in your life you can’t let it go at night. Stress management involves using multiple strategies to compartmentalize your life and get healthier sleep.[6]

Sleep Apnea: the repeated blockage of upper airways during sleep. This reduces or completely blocks airflow. Each time it happens the brain wakes up to compensate, leading to more shallow sleep. This can be caused by physical ailments such as obesity, large tonsils, neuromuscular disorders… the list goes on. Consult a doctor if you have this problem, there are solutions that prevent the airway from being blocked.[8]

Now that we have learned about sleep and sleep hygiene we have the tools we need to improve our sleep.  If you find yourself having trouble after following these tips please seek a doctor’s advice, as sleep is too important to ignore.

Get your sleep and sweet dreams!

Did you find this guide helpful? What’s your advice to improve sleep? What changes are you going to make?  Comment below to let us know!

Other articles in the Brain Health library includes content on nutrition, sleep, and brain games.

While you're here, check out the other articles in my portfolio!


Chamomile Tea:
Definition of Sleep:
Exercise and Sleep:
Lack of Sleep:   

Bad Sleep Tech:
Sleep Apnea:   
Sleep Factoids:     
Sleep info:


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