The Importance of Sleep for the Brain

by | Blog

We can’t say enough about the importance of sleep for our mental and physical wellbeing, not to mention, our brain health. It is a key factor in feeling more alert and overall being happier and more productive. When we get enough sleep, we feel invigorated, mentally alert, happier and more productive. 

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night for proper cognitive and behavioural functions. However, many people struggle to get this amount of rest and suffer from chronic sleep deprivation and go through their day feeling groggy and unmotivated.

How much sleep do you think you get? Does it take you a while to fall asleep? When was the last time you woke up feeling refreshed and energised for the day? If it feels like a long time ago, you could have poor sleep quality or you are not getting adequate sleep.

We spoke to Dr Laureys, our Head of Scientific Advisory Board, about the science of sleep and why it’s important to get enough of it for our brains, mental health and physical wellbeing.

Some facts about the importance of sleep:

  • Those who sleep 7-8 hours a night tend to be, on average, better at maintaining a healthy body weight and managing their energy levels. Sleep disruptions and sleep loss over a prolonged period of time can cause weight gain because hormone levels are affected by sleep and these, in turn, regulate appetite. You also feel tired and sleepy to perform physical activity.
  • Having enough sleep is also linked to better concentration and improved cognitive functions, so the hours you spend sleeping will help you perform to your best ability. We shouldn’t underestimate the restorative function of sleep, as sleep plays a vital part in our recuperation from the day’s stresses.
  • During deep sleep, our body repairs and our mind processes information so we can integrate our experiences and learn new things the next day.

Most research agrees that sleep has many different purposes, ranging from memory consolidation to the regulation of metabolism and the immune system. Brain energy metabolism only declines by 25% during sleep, which suggests that sleep is not simply for conserving energy.

New studies understanding sleep have shown that a restorative function of sleep is to promote the removal of potentially neurotoxic waste proteins via the glymphatic system that accumulate in the awake central nervous system. 

What is the Glymphatic System?

The glymphatic system is a glial-dependent waste clearance pathway in the brain. It is most active when we enter a sleeping state and reduces by 90% when we are awake. 

While we sleep, the role of the glymphatic system is to clear out neurotoxic proteins that are produced during wakefulness. It clears twice the amount of proteins from the brain during deep sleep.

This waste removal from the central nervous system is essential for maintaining the homeostasis necessary for a healthy environment of the brain.

Studies also suggest that the glymphatic system helps distribute non-waste compounds, such as glucose, lipids, amino acids, and neurotransmitters related to volume transmission, in the brain.

Why is glymphatic cleaning important?

Research shows that low activity of the glymphatic system could be a major risk factor for the development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, as aggregated proteins form, losing their physiological roles and taking on neurotoxic properties. In fact, the primary cause of many neurodegenerative diseases is protein aggregation.

Sleep deprivation can reduce glymphatic system function and over time, a build-up of toxic proteins forms, such as amyloid beta—the main component of the plaques that form in the brain during Alzheimer’s Disease. As glymphatic function is found to be dependent on sleep, it highlights just how protective and important the sleep state is. 

Recent studies have also investigated how certain neuroprotective lifestyle choices,  such as sleep position, sleep quality, alcohol intake, exercise and lowering stress levels, can help promote glymphatic clearance and should be harnessed to avoid neurodegeneration.

What can cause sleep deprivation?

There are a lot of factors that can cause sleep deprivation and affect our sleep quality. Poor sleep hygiene, such as unhealthy bedtime habits like too much screen time, an uncomfortable sleeping environment, inconsistent nighttime routine and high-stress levels all influence how much sound sleep you get each night. 

Sleep hygiene refers to science-backed practices that you can do during the day and before bedtime that help create the best conditions for your sleep. Read our “How to Improve Your Sleep Hygiene” blog to find out our 10 tips on sleep hygiene to help you achieve better quality sleep.

Sleeping problems in the UK

There are more people in the UK who suffer from sleep disorders than you might think. The YouGov Sleep Study in 2022 found that one in five Britons (21%) have problems falling asleep a few nights a week, while 15% experience this once or twice a week.

Four in ten (42%) have issues with getting to sleep a few times a month or less often, while just 8% of Britons never have any issues falling asleep.

Interestingly, the report revealed that a quarter of Britons (24%) say they take sleeping aids, including 13% who do so often or sometimes, and 11% who do so rarely.

Taking sleeping pills can be effective for those diagnosed with sleep disorders, like insomnia, and is recommended for a short-term fix. However, taking them for a longer period can have an impact on long-term brain health.

You can become physically dependent, where the idea of going to sleep without them makes you anxious, affecting further your sleep and mental health.

Sleeping pills and cognitive decline

Dr Laureys says: “I have noticed for years an increase in the abuse of sleeping pills in Belgium – as in France, Switzerland, Quebec and in all other industrialised countries. This is why, as a Doctor, I try as much as possible to rid my patients of their addiction to sleeping pills.

Many sleeping pills—like Benadryl and Tylenol PM—contain diphenhydramine, which is an anticholinergic drug. This blocks the activity of a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which plays a key role in muscle activation and brain functions like alertness, learning and memory.

One recent study examined sleep medication use and incident dementia from 6,000 older adults in the US over 8 years. They found a link between the use of these medications and cognitive decline and dementia.

The results revealed that around 15% used sleep medicine “most nights” or “every night” and were 30% more likely to develop dementia during the study period. The research suggests that although sleeping aids help us to fall asleep, they don’t guarantee the quality of sleep we need to kickstart the glymphatic cleaning process that removes neurotoxic waste.

Sophrology and Sleep

Dr Laureys explains that: 

To help tackle a sleep problem and gain more sleep, it is imperative to adapt your lifestyle and sleep habits. Sophrology can help you to let go of any negativity, stress or tension and allows you to enjoy a good night’s sleepIt is a practice that you can use alongside sleeping aids or try as part of a healthy bedtime routine.

An added value of Sophrology is the flexibility of the practice. You can choose a modality within Sophrology that works best for you, such as meditation, movement, breathing, relaxation, visualisation and self-hypnosis, which are all backed up by science to help improve deeper sleep and sleep quality.

It’s important to introduce healthy sleep hygiene techniques into your daily routine, such as creating a comfortable sleep environment, that helps to keep stress levels down, support your mental health, cognitive and immune function, and ensure you get a good night’s rest.

The mind and body do carry the capacity to sleep, even if they seem to have forgotten how. It just takes consistency in the message we send them and a few key lifestyle changes. 

How can Sophrology help?

Sophrology works with relaxation and body awareness techniques so that you can connect to yourself through body and breath and take back a little bit of control of your nervous system.

When you become aware of your body, you become more in tune with the stresses of each day and with Sophrology, you learn how to let go of these to be able to experience better sleep and optimal health. 

Through visualisation, you can create a mental image of achieving a good night’s rest. Use this positive imagery along with breathing exercises so that you can link a positive sensation with your breath, so if you do wake up in the middle of the night, all you need to do is take a few deep breaths to fall back to sleep.

Try this simple sleep exercise to help you sleep better

A simple exercise you can do before going to sleep is to breathe in, close your eyes, breathe out and start scanning your body from head to toe.

Place your hands on your abdomen, breathe in from your belly, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out from your tummy and invite your body to relax.

You can then visualise yourself in a safe bubble allowing you to sleep deeply through the night without interruptions.

Once you become more familiar with Sophrology exercises you will notice a marked improvement in the quality of your sleep. Schedule a short 10-minute break during the day if you can to practise, and possibly spend another 5 minutes in the evening getting ready to sleep with a body scan.

In my book ‘The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology’ I have a specific chapter on sleep if you would like to learn more exercises and how to get ready for a good night’s sleep. It comes with audio downloads so you can immediately be guided through the practice and enjoy the benefits of enough sleep.

Join our Sleep Like a Pro 5-day online series and receive simple, easy-to-follow exercises that you can practice anytime, anywhere, forever. 

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