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Better sleep, better brain: 7 steps to establish a better sleep routine

Jun 16, 2023

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know how important sleep is for our brains. Here’s how you can sleep better to improve your cognitive function.


We all know how important sleep is in our lives. A good night’s rest is something we take for granted - until we don’t get one. Then, we stumble through the day half-awake, wishing we could just go back to bed.

Sleep deprivation can affect every main area of cognition, from attention and memory to processing and executive function. It’s a significant factor in assessing and treating cognitive impairment. Put simply, when we don’t sleep well, our brains just don’t function well.

But the unfortunate reality is many of us struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep deeply enough to feel well-rested… and our brains deserve better. So today, let’s talk about sleep: what it does for your body and brain, what it really means to “sleep better,” and the steps you can take now to make your nightly routine more restful.

What happens when we sleep?

To understand how sleep affects cognition, let’s first examine what “sleeping” really means for our bodies and brains.

The body’s physical changes during sleep

When we fall asleep, virtually every part of our bodies experiences changes. Most notably, our core body processes, including heart rate, breathing, and brain activity all shift. These functions slow until the final stage of our sleep cycle, which brings them back up to waking levels. Our muscles relax, then enter a stage of paralysis known as atonia (it’s what keeps you from acting out your dreams in real life). The brain also releases melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel tired.

The sleep stages

During the average night’s rest, a person progresses through four to five sleep cycles, each lasting 70-120 minutes. Each of these cycles consists of four individual sleep stages, each with their own characteristics. We can also further classify these stages into two categories: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

Stage 1 (non-REM): The shortest sleep stage. This represents the time you spend dozing off, transitioning into full sleep. Your heart rate and breathing will slow, and your muscles will start to relax.

Stage 2 (non-REM): As you fully settle into sleep, your body and mind slow down. However, you’re not yet deeply asleep, and can be woken up fairly easily.

Stage 3 (non-REM): The third sleep stage is deep sleep, also called slow-wave sleep. Your body has officially entered “recovery mode,” slowing its usual operations, including brain activity. You’ll be more difficult to wake in this stage.

Stage 4 (REM): During REM sleep, your brain activity spikes to similar levels as when you’re awake. Your breathing and heart rate will also increase. This stage of sleep is also most associated with dreaming.

Understanding the different stages of sleep is important to identifying an individual’s specific sleep problems, and in linking their sleep patterns to any cognitive challenges they may be experiencing.

Why sleep matters

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand how important sleep is for our brains. If you’ve ever had a sleepless night, or woken up in the morning and still felt exhausted, you already have first-hand experience to see the connection between resting well and healthy cognition. 

When you don’t get a restful night’s sleep, you might…

  • Feel mentally and/or physically fatigued, run-down, and lethargic.
  • Have difficulty concentrating on tasks, or figuring out what to do when.
  • Lose your train of thought.
  • Struggle to process what others are saying to you.
  • Have to read written instructions over and over again to understand them.
  • Forget about events or items on your To Do list.
  • Feel unusually irritable or anxious.

We can all agree that doesn’t sound like an ideal day. But when it comes to cognition, the effects of poor sleep go further than having one not-so–great-day.

Long-term effects of sleep on cognition - When we don’t sleep well, the resulting fatigue and brain fog can affect how we receive, process, and use information. While cognitive impairment can result from a number of factors, here are just a few of the ways poor sleep can affect cognition.

Attention & Executive Function - That brain fog you feel when you haven’t slept well isn’t just an annoyance - it’s a significant impairment to your cognition. Poor sleep diminishes the brain’s ability to placekeep, or perform a multiple-step task without repeating or skipping steps. When we don’t sleep well, we are more likely to get distracted or sidetracked from a task, struggle to figure out what task to do next, or have difficulty remembering the steps necessary to complete a task.

Memory & Recall - Studies indicate slow-wave sleep may play an important role in supporting our declarative memory (the ability to recall fact-based information, like someone’s birthday). REM sleep, on the other hand, is linked to procedural memory (the ability to recall how to do something, like riding a bike). When we don’t spend enough time in these stages of sleep, we may find it difficult to recall declarative or procedural information.

Mental Processing & Reactions - Sleep plays a major role in our ability to learn new tasks that require motor coordination, because our brains need to be able to clearly plan and process the necessary movements. Sleep deprivation can even manifest symptoms similar to drunkenness, with the effect on our ability to process information resulting in slower reaction times.

Clearly, sleeping well and having your brain perform at its best go hand in hand. But when we talk about “sleeping better,” what does that really look like?

What does it mean to “sleep better?”

Have you ever slept in, only to wake up and feel more tired than you normally would? On paper, you got more hours of sleep than usual, yet you somehow feel worse. (And really, it doesn’t seem fair!)

That’s why resting well isn’t all about how many hours you spend asleep. When we talk about sleeping better, we mean improving the overall quality of your sleep, not necessarily the quantity of your sleep. (Though yes, some of us also just need to sleep more, too.) 

We want you to fall asleep easier, maintain a healthy sleep cycle that refreshes your brain, and wake up ready to take on the day while functioning at your cognitive best.

(Oh, and if you’re still wondering why sleeping more can actually make you feel more tired, it has to do with waking up in the wrong part of your sleep cycle. We explain it all here in this video.)

7 steps to improve your sleep routine

So, now that you understand what happens when we fall asleep and how sleep affects cognition, let’s talk about how you can take real, practical steps to getting better sleep. Here are things you can do throughout the day and before bed to optimize your sleep (and your brain along with it).

1. Soak up the sun

How you spend your daytime hours is actually key to improving your sleep at night! We all operate on a sleep-wake cycle known as a circadian rhythm. Essentially, it’s the body’s natural clock, which gives us internal cues about when it’s time to head to sleep. While research shows our circadian rhythm is somewhat inherent to our biology, it’s also influenced by our environment. 

In particular, natural sunlight helps “tune up” our internal clocks. When you expose yourself to more daylight, your body enters the “wake” part of the cycle. Then, when the sun goes down, your internal clock recognizes it’s time to enter the “sleep” part of the cycle. To keep your natural circadian rhythm healthy, try to take in more sunlight during the day.

2. Avoid late-night screen time

Speaking of light exposure and circadian rhythms… let’s talk about screens. You may have heard that using your phone right before bed can keep you awake. Unfortunately, it’s true. So can using your laptop, reading on a tablet, or watching TV. All of these electronics emit blue light, a form of electromagnetic radiation that can influence your circadian rhythm. 

When you use these electronics at night, it’s like you’re shining a light (signifying daytime and the waking portion of the cycle) when your body thinks it should be dark (signifying nighttime and the sleeping portion of the cycle). Plus, blue light actually suppresses the body’s release of melatonin, a hormone that makes us feel tired. As your body and brain struggle to figure out which part of the cycle you should be in, you’re left struggling to fall asleep.

Ideally, to minimize the effect of blue light on your sleep, you should avoid screens for at least an hour or two before you go to bed. If you can’t quite give up your late-night scrolling though, consider downloading a blue light filtering app or investing in a pair of blue light blocking glasses. These can reduce your exposure to blue light and help you transition to more restful sleep.

3. Keep cool

Ever spent a summer night tossing and turning, too hot to fall asleep? It’s not just discomfort keeping you awake - it’s science. Not only can heat exposure make us feel more awake, it can prevent us from achieving restful sleep. Warmer temperatures can actually decrease slow-wave and REM sleep, meaning you’re more likely to wake in the middle of the night and also feel less rested the following morning.

Plus, our body temperature naturally drops while we’re sleeping, fluctuating about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures are too warm, our bodies can have trouble with natural thermoregulation. This leads to increased fatigue - feeling physically and mentally tired, but being unable to fall asleep.

That’s why most people will sleep better in slightly cooler environments. Try getting your bedroom temperature to fall between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius) to optimize your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. You can also take a hot shower or bath right before bed, which will help lower your core body temperature.

4. Establish your own unique bedtime routine…

This isn’t about taking any specific actions, but rather about “hacking” your brain into better sleep. If you complete the same series of actions each night before bed, you can psychologically prime your brain into thinking it’s time to sleep. Plus, the comfort of having a specific routine can help you regulate your sympathetic nervous system, reducing anxieties that might otherwise keep you awake.

The specific actions in your bedtime routine are totally up to you - just stick to activities that you personally find relaxing, so you don’t end up sending your brain mixed signals! Try reading a book, taking a bath, meditating, journaling, or listening to music.

5. …and make it timely!

And while you’re creating your bedtime routine, here’s another tip: make it timely. (Bedtimes aren’t just for kids, you know!) It’s actually really important to aim to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day. The more consistently you enforce your own sleep/wake cycle, the easier it will be for your body to fall into that rhythm naturally. 

When you’re working on establishing a regular, timely sleep schedule, alarms are your friend. Don’t just set one to wake up at the same time each day. Set one in the evening to remind yourself it’s time to kick off your sleep routine, too.

6. Eat well, sleep well

It’s important to be aware that what we eat and drink (and when) can affect our sleep. Caffeine stimulates our nervous system and can stay in our blood for 6-8 hours after consumption; if you’re having trouble falling asleep, make sure you’re not grabbing coffee after 4pm. Similarly, be wary of late-night alcohol. Studies have shown the ethanol in alcoholic beverages can inhibit melatonin production, keeping us awake.

Food can also prove a double-edged sword when it comes to sleep. Going to bed hungry can keep you awake… but so can going to bed too full! To give your body time to digest your meal without waiting until you’re hungry again, aim to stop eating about three hours before you go to sleep.

7. Optimize your bedroom

Don’t just get your body ready for sleep - get your bedroom ready for sleep! No one wants to crawl into bed at the end of the day only to realize they can’t get comfortable, or there’s a weird light shining in their eyes, or a distracting sound keeping them up. So, do a little bedroom evaluation to make sure you’ve optimized it for your sleep needs. Here’s a quick checklist for you:

  • Do your mattress and pillow offer the right support for your body and sleeping position?
  • Do your sheets and blankets allow you to sleep at a comfortable temperature?
  • Do your curtains or blinds fully block outside light?
  • Are you exposing yourself to blue light before sleep?
  • Do you need a fan or heater to get the room to an optimal sleeping temperature?
  • Does your bedroom door keep out distracting lights or sounds from outside the room?

With these conditions met, you’ll likely be ready to sleep a little easier!

Better sleep for a better brain

With sleep deprivation and cognitive impairment so closely tied, it’s obvious why resting well is one of RBI’s core pillars of cognitive care. We know better sleep makes for better brains, and we want to help people get the quality sleep they deserve so they can live their lives to the fullest. Your brain shouldn’t hold you back, and neither should your sleep.

If your sleep problems are severe, you may need more advanced cognitive care.

If you believe your sleep problems are severely impacting your cognitive function, or are concerned about how sleep may be just one of many challenges to your cognitive health, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health each month, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.

 

Learn more about My RBI Academy