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Many people have a distorted view of sleep. They believe that while asleep their brain is relatively inactive but in fact, your brain is unbelievably active. The brain is engaged in a greater amount of rhythmical activity while you are asleep versus awake. (The only time your brain consumes less energy while sleeping compared to a similar awake period is during deep non-REM sleep.)

Our brain has many important tasks it needs to accomplish while we sleep. Besides allowing us to feel renewed and refreshed, sleep plays an important role in our ability to consolidate memories and even learn new things. Everyone has heard the term "sleep on it" and Dimitri Mendeleyev is an excellent example of the phrase in action.

You can thank Mendeleyev for the periodic table we all learned in chemistry. He had been studying elements for quite some time, but had no way of organizing them. One night while contemplating this problem, he fell asleep. When he woke he had the organization of all the elements resolved in his mind.

Mountains of data suggest that sleep is vital to our cognitive abilities. Two such studies were cited in the book "Brain Rules" by John Medina.

One study suggested a high academic achiever can become one of the worst in the class simply because of inadequate sleep. The study showed that a student, who regularly scored in the top 10% of her class, could end up in the bottom 10% if she were deprived of sleep and her classmates were not.

Another study observed soldiers in charge of complex military hardware. Deprivation of a single night’s sleep caused a 30% reduction in their proficiency to use the hardware. Two nights of sleep deprivation caused a 60% reduction in their proficiency to use the hardware.

Not getting enough sleep negatively impacts all aspects of cognitive performance.

Research shows sleep deprivation impairs attention, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making. Why is this happening? It is simple; all three drivers of cognitive performance are being negatively affected.

When you are stressed, the hormone cortisol is released. Chronic exposure to increased levels of cortisol can damage brain cells, impair the growth of new cells, and make it harder for cells to form new synaptic connections. Call it a coincidence, but sleep deprivation also increases cortisol levels in the brain.

That is not all. Sleep prevents the release of certain neurotransmitters. Normal sleep related interruption of neurotransmitters is important as it gives receptors "a break". Should the receptors not get this “break”, they may lose sensitivity and functionality. This decreases the effectiveness at which neurons communicate, and works against the third driving force behind cognitive function.

Finally, your body's ability to utilize the energy in food falls by nearly 30% when deprived of sleep. Your brain uses 20% of your body's energy. This deficit in energy, coupled with your brain's increased exposure to cortisol has negative effects on the body and mind.

The bottom line is this, chronic sleep deprivation hinders the growth of new brain cells, makes it more difficult for brain cells to form new connections, and reduces the functionality of connections that already exist. Getting adequate sleep each night is a vital part of this neuro-regimen.

What is considered adequate sleep?

How many hours of sleep are considered adequate? Most of you have probably heard eight hours is recommended. If you only want to take one line of advice from this section then go with that. But the reality is, experts have no “magic number.”There are numerous variables at play; age, gender, and genetic factors play a role. Someone the same age and gender as you might only need seven hours of sleep each night, while you might need nine.

Research has determined the average amount of sleep necessary for most adults is between seven and eight hours per night. For adolescents, nine hours is ideal. Generally, the younger you are, the more sleep you need.

But how can you determine exactly how much sleep you need. A great starting point is the following table:

Chances are you fall into the 7-9 hour range. To determine where you fall in this range, assess your individual sleep habits. This is pretty simple to do. Record when you attempt to fall asleep, how long it takes, and when you wake up. Then consider how you feel throughout the day. What kind of mood are you in? Do you lack energy and mental clarity? If so, you probably did not get sufficient sleep. Keep taking notes on your sleep habits until you find your ideal number. If you are not getting enough sleep on a consistent basis, your brain and body will be affected.

I know I am not getting enough sleep, but what can I do?

I had difficulty sleeping for much of my life, and understand getting eight hours of sleep is not an easy task. Not only did it consistently take me an hour or longer to fall asleep most nights, I would awaken several times a night, for no apparent reason. I have since taken measures to mitigate this problem. Now it only takes me 10-15 minutes to fall asleep, and most nights, I sleep for 7 hours before waking up. I will be honest; it wasnot an easy task to accomplish. Below are my doctor's recommendations. Try these steps before considering medication.

  • You need to establish a consistent sleep and wake schedule. And yes, you need to follow this schedule on weekends. Sleep needs to be at the top of your priority list. This is the hardest step to follow, but it is also the most important.
  • Create a “bedtime routine”. This can involve anything such as taking a long shower before bed, listening to music, or reading a book. You should begin this routine approximately one hour before bed time. My routine involves watching a movie, followed by a warm shower.
  • Do not eat a big meal or exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime. Eating triggers your digestive system and can keep you awake. Exercise releases certain neurotransmitters that increase alertness. However, regular exercise during the day will help you sleep at night.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. Do not use your computer or watch TV in your bedroom, especially right before you go to sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. Alcohol interrupts sleeping patterns. Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants.
  • Make sure your environment is comfortable, quiet, and dark.

Supplements to Assist with Sleep

Earlier I discussed how important a good night's sleep is to cognitive function. The problem is, many people have trouble falling and staying asleep. Melatonin is a natural supplement which may help some with difficulties sleeping.

Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the brain's pineal gland. Our brain uses it to help regulate sleep and wake cycles. During the day, levels of Melatonin rise and peak at night. When levels of melatonin are at their peak we are generally the sleepiest. As we age, melatonin levels begin to peak earlier and earlier. This is why older individuals usually get sleepy early at night.

Melatonin supplements can be found in most drug stores. It is important to know that a larger dose is not always better. One study concluded a 0.3mg dose was just as effective as a 3mg dose. Further, a dose that is too large can be counterproductive. When you take too much melatonin, some may spill into areas of your brain which are not equipped to handle the hormone, and exacerbate sleeping problems.

When you purchase Melatonin, doses will likely range from 1mg-20mg. Taking a dose greater than 1 mg is not recommended.

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