A little tip for you fitness folks: there’s a new training method that can help you improve your speed, strength, and sharpness, and all it involves is laying still for eight hours. There are many top-level athletes that are now even hiring coaches specifically to teach them how to do this thing better.
This powerful secret method? Sleep, and it’s not really all that new (or that secret)—in fact, we’ve been using this particular training method for millions and millions of years! The athletic benefits of sleep are just now happening to find an appreciation in the realm of sports.
The great benefits of sleep aren’t just available to high-paid celebrity athletes with personal sleep coaches, though, because better sleep is possible for everyone. Here are just four of the most impactful benefits of consistent sleep for athletes like you—no matter what level you’re at—as well as a pointer on how you can start sleeping like the pros:
1. Sleep = more energy
It probably seems almost too obvious, but if you’re an athlete, the role of energy in your performance is always good to remember. Whenever your sleep is inadequate, and you’re feeling the weight of fatigue, you’re less likely to feel inspired enough to go to the gym; you’re also far less likely to give 100% when it comes time for practice. The longer you continue to be deprived of sleep, the more fatigued you’ll feel every day, as the effects of sleep deprivation only continue to build the longer the issue persists.
2. Making essential repairs
When you get a full night of sleep, you experience slow-wave sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep. During deep sleep, your body releases growth hormones which can heal the tissues of muscles that have been worn down by your previous day’s exercise. When you miss out on sleep, your body is missing out on much-needed repairs.
3. Helping you keep a healthy diet
Perhaps the most important factor in maintaining fitness over the course of a lifetime is keeping up a healthy diet. And, if you want to keep a healthy diet, you’re going to need a good night’s sleep.
Your appetite is fueled by two hormones called leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin tells your body when it should be hungry, while leptin signals to your body that you’ve eaten enough. A study at the University of Chicago found that operating on four or five hours of sleep decreased concentrations of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin, throwing them out of their proper balance—a clear sign that your body’s hunger has gone off the rails.
4. Keeping you sharp
A study with the Stanford men’s basketball team showed after letting the players sleep for an extended period of time, their free throw accuracy improved by 9% and they shaved an average of .7 seconds off of their sprint times (from 16.2 to 15.5 seconds).
Talk to a Sleep Coach
So how can you get the same improvements in your sleep as the pros? Well, by taking the same approach—getting in touch with a sleep coach. Although you don’t need to have the same high-level connections (or the same limitless budget) as celebrity athletes in order to have your very own Sleep Coach.
Reverie®️ Sleep Coach™ offers you all the up-to-date knowledge and sleep expertise available to those in the big leagues, and ensures that you’ll sleep just like the winners. How does it work? We set you up with one of our Certified Sleep Coaches who will work with you like a personal trainer for your sleep, talking with you one-on-one and coming up with a customized plan for your sleep success based on the specific roadblocks you face when it comes to sleep. If this sounds like the boost you’ve been needing in order to improve your performance out on the field or the court, you should contact one of our Certified Sleep Coaches to learn more.
Schedule your free ten-minute introductory call with an actual Sleep Coach now!
Sleep may be the most influential aspect of our health that is widely taken for granted. Many these days aren’t surprised to learn that a large number of the population makes due with six hours of sleep or less on average, but they are surprised to learn that six hours of sleep a night puts your health at serious risk.
This widespread indifference towards sleep is partly due, of course, to the fact that so many of us tend to look at sleep as a burden, something that keeps us from friends and family, from our entertainment, and from getting things done. But a much deeper reason is just that so many are unaware of the profound difference getting good sleep makes in our lives, even in our day-to-day experiences.
Sleep is the difference between a productive work day, and a day spent fixing an avoidable mistake. Sleep is the difference between being an understanding parent and coworker, and becoming frustrated and angry with others at the flip of a switch. Sleep is the difference between a long life with a strong heart, and living under the shadow of heart disease due to high stress. Sleep makes a difference.
If you’re here and reading this, then that means you’ve already given yourself a leg up on getting better sleep. Go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back! You now have some idea of the importance of sleep, and you know you want to get the best sleep possible—this is a great place to start.
So, how can you start to make that change for the better? Well, by talking with the experts in sleep, of course.
Enter Reverie’s amazing Sleep CoachTM program.
We offer one-on-one sessions with certified sleep coaches to help you get a customized plan for better sleep going forward.
Wondering what makes a sleep coach, well, a “sleep coach”? We’ve worked with our Sleep Advisory Board—comprised of scientists and doctors from leading universities—to take the latest in sleep science research and translate it for your life. Our sleep coaches come from wellness backgrounds and have gone through intensive training to become experts on the latest in sleep science and how it applies to your life. They’re here to educate, motivate, encourage, and hold you accountable to your sleep goals.
Sound good? It is! When you schedule a one-on-one, it’s like meeting with a personal trainer who cares a lot about your sleep and wants to see you succeed.
Better sleep is possible, and it’s right here at your fingertips.
Interested in talking to a sleep coach? Schedule your free 10-minute introductory call today.
Settling for less-than-awesome sleep means settling for a less-than-awesome life. Don’t leave your sleep up to chance—take advantage of our Sleep Coach program and start sleeping like you mean it.
As we’ve talked about before, sleep and exercise work hand-in-hand with each other to improve your health and well-being. This relationship is only strengthened when you increase the amount of activity in your life. If you are an athlete, a marathon runner, or just someone who enjoys working up a bit of sweat every day, you need an even greater amount of sleep than those living a more laid-back lifestyle.
The reason behind this is simple: the more exercise you’re getting throughout the day, the more energy you’re expending, which means you feel more tired earlier on in the evening and experience greater sleep duration. If you’re packing a lot of physical activity into your day, you’re also more likely to feel well-rested the next morning due to experiencing a higher-quality sleep.
Your body’s increased order of sleep is its way of helping you out with your goals, supporting your active lifestyle using one of its most useful tools: a full night of shut-eye. What exactly is sleep’s role in making you a better athlete or runner? Read on:
Sleep restores your body
When you get a full night of sleep, you experience slow-wave sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep. During deep sleep, which takes place when you’re in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, your body releases growth hormones which can heal the tissues of muscles that have been worn down by your previous day’s exercise. This helps develop your muscles and allows you to bounce back faster the next day.
Sleep improves your performance
Studies show that, along with boosting their mood and alertness, athletes who increase their amount of sleep each night improve their athletic performance overall. Sleep also assists in the learning of new skills, an essential part of advancing in any physical activity, but especially useful when it comes to training for a competitive sport.
For those suspicious of the helpfulness of sleep when it comes to athletic performance, you only need to look at the opposite side of things: losing out on a total of even 20 hours of sleep (across a couple of weeks, say) has been shown to have a negative effect on athletic performance.
It’s not hard to imagine why: sleep deprivation saps us of energy, and without getting deep, quality sleep, you’re losing out on the restorative power of growth hormones. (And we won’t even go into how sleep deprivation also causes a lack of attentiveness, a lack of problem-solving skills, and a higher chance of eating unhealthy foods.)
A tip for your best sleep
Whether it’s reps in the gym or practice out on the field, it’s very important for your sleep hygiene that you don’t exercise at night close to bedtime. As you know, a lot of exercise will get your body temperature up, but your goal around sundown should actually be to lower your temperature.
You should aim for getting your physical activity in during the day, and scheduling it for the morning is ideal. That way you get that lovely burst of energy at the start of your day, and when you soak in sunlight, you’re helping to keep your body’s circadian rhythm aligned with the rhythm of the sun. Who couldn’t use more alertness in the early morning and an easier time heading to bed at night?
Whenever you’re pushing your body harder, remember that you should make sleep an even higher priority. One of the great things about sleep is that it will always rise to the challenges we place on it—we just have to give it the opportunity!Reverie Sleep Coach offers personalized 1:1 sessions with a certified sleep coach so you can start sleeping better. It's like a personal trainer, but for your sleep. Learn more.
Whether it’s time spent sweating in the gym, or time spent chasing the kids around the house, you probably get at least a little exercise in every day. While you’ve probably heard a plethora of reasons why you should be exercising daily, you may not know that it’s also really great for your sleep. Here are a few reasons why, and some tips on how you can make the best use of your exercise to get an awesome night’s sleep (and vice versa!).
The vigorous cycle
Research shows that when you exercise, you sleep longer and feel more rested upon waking. Even those who get a light amount of exercise report getting more high-quality sleep than those who get no exercise. Getting the right amount of sleep, in turn, gives you greater energy the next day, giving you the ability to exercise to your full potential. When you get consistent exercise and great sleep, you are starting up an invigorating cycle that will only result in greater improvements to your health.
For those who include a more intense workout in their weekly routine, sleep also helps with muscle recovery. During sleep, there is a surge of growth hormones which help to repair muscle tissues (among many other parts of your body), allowing you to bounce back faster and be ready for exercise the next day. When you miss out on sleep, your body is missing out on much-needed repairs.
Sleep, exercise, and aging
Need more proof that these two heavyweights of health work hand in hand? We can take a look even deeper, down at the genetic level. The spirals of your individual packets of DNA are capped with telomeres that keep the strands from “fraying” and breaking down. Getting less sleep than you need or getting poor quality sleep causes these telomeres to weaken.
Sleep scientist Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep tells us that this damaging of the telomeres from sleep deprivation appears to correspond with the aging of our bodies at an accelerated rate compared to our actual chronological ages. Exercise, on the other hand, has been found to do the opposite.
In a recent study, it was shown that consistent exercise keeps telomeres strong and intact, keeping your body biologically younger than your non-exercising peers—up to nine years younger in fact. If you’ve ever encountered an active older adult who’s kept up an impressive workout routine throughout their life, this finding may not come as much of a surprise.
The main takeaway? Whether you make daily exercise a high priority and let good sleep fall by the wayside, or you luxuriate in great sleep but give up on exercising—ignoring one and excelling at the other means that you’re not reaping the full benefits for your health.
Sleep and exercise tips
Looking to establish a good routine? To make the most of exercise’s impact on your sleep, it’s all about timing:
Don’t exercise right before bed, as this will raise your temperature, and a higher body temperature before bed prevents the onset of sleep.
If you must exercise in the afternoon or evening, try to schedule it in two or three hours before your bedtime.
The most ideal time to hit the gym is in the morning, as this will provide you with energy to begin the day. If you can get outdoors and soak up some sun, even better, as this will help to regulate your circadian rhythm and help you to have more alert mornings and an easier time falling asleep at night.
If exercise has not exactly been your “thing”, getting great sleep may just give you the burst of energy you’ve been needing to hit the gym in the morning. And, if you’re a superstar exerciser but you only sleep a wink, improving the quality of your sleep can give you the extra few reps you might be missing.
It’s clear then that, even on the genetic level, sleep and exercise are meant to work together, as excelling in one while ignoring the other will cancel out many positive effects. All of this serves as just another reminder to us that, when it comes to your body’s efforts to keep you healthy, sleep is the ultimate team player.
The impact of sleep
Let’s be honest: when was the last time you woke up without an alarm clock and felt awesome? And when was the last time you made it through a whole day without feeling groggy and underslept (or without being alarmingly over-caffeinated)?
1 in 3 American adults report that they are not getting enough sleep, and as it turns out, when we don't sleep, it’s really bad for us. Sleeping less than six or seven hours a night wreaks havoc on all aspects of our wellness. Carried out over a long period of time, these negative effects are only compounded.
When you are sleep deprived, you:
Are more stressed, creating a higher risk of developing hypertension.
Are more likely to experience weight gain.
Have a higher risk of developing cancer.
These are only a few of the detrimental effects of losing out on sleep. The good news, though, is that when you get consistent quality sleep, you protect yourself from this damage, and you also reap the amazing, life-changing benefits of sleep. What do these look like? Well, for starters, getting great sleep:
Encourages a healthy microbiome in our gut.
Promotes the ideal state for our cardiovascular system.
Creates a better learning environment for our brain to memorize, remember, and make logical decisions.
The awesome thing about sleep is that it really and truly enhances every organ and function studied to date: there has yet to be a part of our physiology that has not been found to benefit from quality sleep.
Cover all your bases
If getting great sleep always seems to be just out of reach for you, you should make sure that you’re maintaining good sleep hygiene, which simply means taking steps to protect yourself from losing sleep. Here’s the list from the NIH with tips to help you get your best sleep:
Stick to a consistent sleep schedule.
Exercise is great for sleep, but don’t do it too late in the day, as this can prevent you from falling asleep.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine.
Avoid alcoholic drinks close to bedtime.
Avoid large beverages and meals late at night.
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
Relax before bed.
Take a hot bath before bed.
Keep your bedroom cool, completely dark, and free of any screens such as phones, TVs, tablets, etc.
Get the right sunlight exposure, as this will help regulate your sleeping pattern.
Don’t lie in bed awake. If sleep doesn’t come on after lying in bed for more than 30 minutes, or you start to feel anxious or stressed, get up and do a relaxing activity in a different room, and head back to bed once you feel tired.
The mighty slumber
Sleep is infinitely more complex, profoundly more interesting, and alarmingly more relevant to our health and wellness than we could've ever predicted even a hundred years ago—and we are always learning more about it. Many health professionals are calling sleep the single-most beneficial thing we can do for preventative care. There is just nothing out there that can claim to do for your body all the things that sleep can do. Make sure to take advantage of this wonderful remedy tonight!
If you have a sneaking suspicion that you’re not getting enough sleep every night, you can find a little comfort in knowing that you are definitely not alone. A recent study by the CDC states that 1 in 3 Americans are getting an insufficient amount of sleep, which means less than 7 hours of shut-eye a night.
Losing more than sleep
If you are one of the many Americans who are content if they can get five or six hours of sleep a night, you might think, “Well, what’s an hour more or less of sleep?” It turns out that hour can make an enormous difference. Spread out over months, years, or even (sadly) an entire lifetime, this condition is known as chronic sleep deprivation, and it comes with serious consequences, such as an increased chance of developing hypertension and diabetes.
As sleep is one of your main protectors against rampaging diseases and debilitating conditions, losing out on an hour or two every night means lowering your defenses, and taking unnecessary risks with your health.
What’s in an hour?
Not only is it dangerous to constantly get less than 7 hours of sleep, but it also deprives you of getting quality sleep.
When you’re asleep, your brain is cycling through the two main types of sleep: rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep (NREM). Sleep scientist Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep tells us that waking up too early or going to bed too late can steal away the time you should be spending in these important phases that work to keep us physically and mentally in good shape.
Walker gives us the example of going to sleep at midnight and instead of waking up at eight in the morning, you’re up at six a.m. for an early meeting. The logical answer to how much sleep you’ve lost would be 25 percent (as you’ve lost two hours from the recommended eight), but that’s not entirely true. “Since your brain desires most of its REM sleep in the...late-morning hours,” Walker tells us, “you will lose 60 to 90 percent of all your REM sleep, even though you are losing 25 percent of your total sleep time”.
Similarly, if you wake up at eight a.m. but don’t go to bed until two a.m., “then you lose a significant amount of NREM sleep”. According to Walker, losing these precious couple of hours at the beginning or ending of sleep is “[s]imilar to an unbalanced diet in which you only eat carbohydrates and are left malnourished by the absence of protein”. Clearly, when it comes to the efficient operating system of sleep, an hour is much more than just an hour.
Put sleep on the schedule
If you’re like a lot of people, you may spend the end of your day in bed, unwinding by going through Facebook notifications or scrolling through your Twitter feed. Screens do a fantastic job of keeping our brains itching to refresh the page just one more time before shutting off for the night. Despite tucking yourself in at nine p.m....you may not actually be going to sleep until much later. This common activity could be shaving off an hour or two every night from your sleep.
A solution? Giving yourself an eight-hour “sleep opportunity”. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be asleep for eight hours, but you are going to carve out that time to give your body rest every night. This eight-hour span of time should be reserved especially as “sleep time”—not a refresh-the-feed time.
This “sleepportunity” gives you enough cushion to fall asleep, have an occasional night time wake up, and still give your body those beautiful seven to eight hours of sleep.
A friend indeed
Sleep is our constant companion for one-third of our lives (one-third!), and just like any special relationship we want to keep going strong, it requires us to carve time out of our day and make it a priority. If you treat your sleep well, you can be sure that it will return the favor many times over.
Did you know that getting quality, restful sleep can help you lose weight?
According to Sanjay Patel, M.D. a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, at least two dozen studies have confirmed that people who sleep less tend to weigh more. Studying almost 70,000 women over the course of 16 years, Patel and his colleagues discovered that women who sleep less than five hours a night were far more likely to gain weight than those who get at least seven and a half hours. And the difference wasn't negligible. In fact, they were 30% more likely to gain 30 or more pounds. Yikes.
The sleep connection to appetite and metabolism.
There are several different ways losing sleep can thwart your weight loss efforts. Research from the University of Chicago suggests that sleep deprivation may lead to a change in how our bodies regulate appetite, leading us to crave more food. “You may start not only eating more, but eating unhealthy foods — those high in fat and carbohydrates,” says Patel. “Another possibility is that because people who are sleep-deprived feel more fatigued, they exercise less. Sleep deprivation can also change your basal metabolic rate, slowing down how many calories you burn just doing basic life-sustaining activities, like breathing and maintaining body temperature.”
The nitty gritty science of it.
Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical director of the sleep division at Southwest Spine & Sport in Scottsdale, Arizona, and author of Beauty Sleep, reports that sleep deprivation leads to an overproduction of ghrelin and a decrease in leptin production. Ghrelin is hormone that causes hunger; leptin is a hormone that prompts people to stop eating. This imbalance can lead to over-eating. Furthermore, the brain secretes growth hormones during sleep, which helps metabolize fat in the body.
In short, the intertwined nature of sleep and weight loss continues to be uncovered, and in all cases it seems that better sleep contributes to a more ideal weight. If you're struggling to lose a few pounds, it might be time to refocus on your nightly slumber rather than the next juice cleanse.
For more info about how different sleeping positions can help you sleep better, click here.
Pregnant? New parent or have small kids? Tired? Get tips and info on our special site for exhausted moms.
Ready to start sleeping better?
There are a couple oft-cited “epidemics” in America, one being obesity, and the other inadequate sleep. Unfortunately, it’s not just attention-grabbing headlines: according to studies, over one third of Americans are obese, and one third don’t get enough sleep.
The closeness of these two figures may be more than coincidence. A growing body of research shows a strong association between sleep deprivation and weight gain. In a meta-analysis that encompassed 634,511 subjects, both male and female, ranging in age from 2 to 102, researchers found a consistent increased risk of obesity among those who don’t sleep enough.
So what role does sleep loss play in weight gain—and, on the flip side, can quality sleep help with weight loss?
Before a bunch of unhealthy food can cause weight gain, you first have to make the decision to eat that unhealthy food. And there’s a great deal of evidence that sleep plays a major role in deciding whether or not you indulge.
Sleep deprivation dulls activity in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is the region responsible for decision making and impulse control. So when a coworker offers you a donut, you take it, rather than eating the yogurt you so dutifully packed.
What’s more, being overly tired actually makes your brain more interested in junk than you’d normally be. This is because sleep deprivation lights up your brain’s reward center, leading you to seek “pleasurable, rewarding experiences”… such as the nefarious donut mentioned earlier.
In one study from Berkeley, participants rated the desirability of certain foods both when they were well-rested and then again after sleep deprivation. In the state of sleep debt, the amygdala portion of the brain (which is involved in emotions, pleasure and appetite, and an important part of the brain’s reward system) was highly activated. Participants consistently rated unhealthy, high-calorie foods as more desirable than they had when they were well-rested.
The research bears out in real life, too. Sleep-deprived Japanese factory workers are more likely to snack between meals, eat out, and not eat vegetables; Americans who don’t sleep enough consume more sugar and have less variety in their diet; in Germany, inadequate sleep is associated with increased fast food consumption.
And to top it all off, sleep-deprived people also eat bigger portions. Bottom line: sleep helps you resist temptation and make smarter food choices.
Fatigue and fullness
So say you’re sleep-deprived and you splurge on two (okay, three) slices of pizza at lunch. At least you’ll be full for a while and not eat anymore waistline-expanding goodies, right?
Well, maybe not.
Short sleep disrupts the balance of your hormones, including leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is often referred to as the “satiety hormone,” causing you to feel full and suppressing appetite, while ghrelin triggers hunger and plays a large role in initiating eating.
When you’re not well-rested, your leptin levels plummet and your ghrelin levels rise; one study found that subjects who slept for 5 hours had 15.5% lower leptin than those who slept a full 8 hours, and 14.9% higher ghrelin. This means that you’ll not only be eating less healthy, more caloric food—you’ll also feel hungrier and seek food more frequently.
Sleepless and stress-full
Among the many benefits of proper sleep is that it can reduce stress, which, in turn, can help reduce your weight. How? It comes back to another hormone—this time, cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released in response to stress, and its levels are closely tied to our natural sleep/wake cycles. So when those cycles get disrupted, so do those levels, causing a spike in cortisol in the bloodstream.
This spike doesn’t just make you feel stressed out. Cortisol causes fat to be stored around the organs (especially visceral organs, which translates to belly fat), and also causes fat cells to become larger. Studies have shown that elevated cortisol can cause increased belly fat even in otherwise slender individuals.
You know how not sleeping well makes you feel groggy and lethargic? Well, turns out your metabolism feels pretty much the same way.
When you’re well-rested, your metabolism is a well-oiled machine, efficiently processing the calories that you consume. On the flip side, when you’re in a state of sleep deprivation, your groggy metabolism can’t keep up with your food intake. What causes this breakdown? It all comes down to insulin.
See, insulin plays an important role in helping our body convert sugar into energy for our cells. When our body can’t properly use insulin (insulin resistance) that sugar remains in our bloodstream and eventually is converted into fat. This is the case for those who have diabetes—and, research shows, for those who aren’t getting enough sleep.
One study showed that after just four nights of short sleep, subjects’ ability to respond to insulin decreased by 16%—a difference comparable to that between the cells of obese vs. lean people—and the insulin sensitivity of their fat cells dropped by 30%. The latter is particularly important because fat cells play a crucial role in storing and releasing energy. Meanwhile, insulin resistance in the brain means that insulin can’t do its job of reducing hunger cues.
One report put it in stark terms: “Chronic sleep loss can reduce the capacity of even young adults to perform basic metabolic functions, such as processing and storing carbohydrates or regulating hormone secretion.”
As if your metabolism wasn’t getting a big enough blow from the insulin resistance, there’s this: sleep deprivation reduces the production of thyroid-stimulating-hormone, which is an essential player in proper metabolism. Ouch.
Too sleepy to sweat
Anyone who has tried to slim down or get into better shape knows the importance of regular exercise, as well as how tough it can be to get into a workout routine. To the surprise of exactly nobody, not getting enough sleep makes it much more difficult to achieve this.
It’s intuitive—when you’re tired, you don’t want to go exert a bunch of energy. And studies show that subjects with sleep problems report a significant reduction in their levels of physical activity. What’s more, the increased ghrelin and decreased leptin levels associated with sleep loss mean an overall reduction in energy expenditure.
And if you do drag your tired butt to the gym, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to keep yourself there for a full workout. Sleep deprivation increases your perceived exertion and increases the likelihood that you’ll cut your sweat session short.
Sweet dreams for good genes
Your lifestyle is a huge factor in determining your weight, but the fact is that genetics also play a role. This can be super discouraging to those who are working hard to eat right and work out but still can’t lose the weight because of a genetic predisposition to a higher BMI.
However, research shows that adequate sleep can reduce the influence your genetics have on your weight. In a study of identical twins that looked at BMI, genetics, and lifestyle factors including diet, exercise, and sleep habits, they found that the BMI variations in those who slept adequately were less dependent on genetics. However, those who slept less saw 70% of their BMI variations come from hereditary factors.
The final word
From the food you choose to eat, to how your body processes that food, to your workouts, to the relative impact of all of these components, sleep influences every aspect of your weight. Diet and exercise may get more press, but science has made it increasingly clear that sleep is the essential third pillar of fitness.
So if losing weight, getting fit, or just maintaining a healthy BMI is one of your resolutions, getting enough shut-eye needs to be as well.
Interested in the latest ways a good bed can help you sleep? Read more here.
Pregnant? New parent or have small kids? Tired? Get tips and info on our special site for exhausted moms.
Ready to start sleeping better?
It’s an unfortunate but nearly universal fact that as we age, we become a little less…um…what’s the word we’re looking for… quick. Or, as our slowed synapses might have it, the brain don’t work so good no more. This is nothing to get down on yourself for—deficits in cognitive performance are a universal consequence of the aging process. It can start from as early as 45 years old, and its myriad forms—cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease—stem from the same basic condition: age. Like your skin and your bones, your brain gradually becomes weaker over time, and things like learning new skills, retaining memories, and using language become more and more difficult. For most, it usually happens so slowly that it’s hard to notice that anything is happening at all.
So is there anything you can do to halt, or at least slow down, this process? For those of us already in the age group most likely to suffer from dementia and mental decline—65 years and older—a variety of methods may help slow the onset, including managing blood sugar levels, staying physically active, consuming a lot of antioxidants (berries are a brain favorite), and keeping the brain challenged with activities like crossword puzzles, ongoing study, and meditation.
But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What can be done to reduce the risk of cognitive decline? How can we stop it before it’s begun? The tactics above are certainly useful, but there’s an undervalued factor that’s as simple and effortless as closing your eyes.
Oh yeah, we’re talking about sleep.
You probably already know that when you’re tired, your mind moves a little more slowly than usual, and science has proven this from every angle. Sleep deprivation severely diminishes your ability to learn and retain information, all while decimating your coordination and reaction time to boot.
What’s really troubling is that these problems compound over the long term. One day of low sleep will disrupt a litany of hormonal reactions that your body needs for optimal function. Fortunately, catching up on those lost Zs with some better sleep will more or less right the wrong—the body is nothing if not good at bouncing back.
But what happens if the body isn’t given the time it needs to recover? What if one day of bad sleep is followed by another, and another? A 2014 study in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine sought to answer that question by looking at 2,822 men with a mean age of 76 years. After using a wrist actigraph to study their sleeping habits over an average period of three and a half years, they found that fragmented sleep resulted in a 40 to 50 percent increase in the odds of clinically significant cognitive decline. This is such a severe increase that the study authors equated it with adding on five years of age. They also noted that cognitive impairment is actually increasing in the elderly, making it all the more important to nail down its causes.
Sleep (or lack thereof) is a pretty darn big one, and other studies have found plenty of reasons why. Sleep apnea, for instance, disturbs sleep quality and can result in less oxygen reaching the brain, and a 20-year study of Californian women found that women with problematic sleep were almost twice as likely to experience dementia or cognitive impairment. Other research has found that fragmented sleep, whatever its cause, results in an overall reduction in slow wave sleep, which is crucial for normalizing cortisol and inflammation, which can both lead to mental decline.
In the end, sleep isn’t just important; it’s a pillar of a healthy lifestyle, equally as crucial as diet, exercise, and mental health. Indeed, it has a profound effect on all three. While six pack abs may be impossible to maintain in a nursing home, cognitive function is—especially if you start sleeping better tonight.