Sunday, May 22, 2022



Many times I have wondered how much sleep we really need for optimal well-being. Of course, research on this subject is ongoing. Most of us do not need research studies to tell us after a night of poor quality sleep or going to bed too late and getting up too early we do not perform at our usual standards. It is harder to concentrate. That is just for a night or two of poor sleep. Decades of bad sleep can actually lead to cognitive decline. It affects our moods and behavior, whether we are a young infant or toddler or an older adult. I started questioning exactly how much sleep does our brain need to operate properly in the long term. Research studies published in Nature Aging, gives us this answer.

Sleep is an important component of maintaining normal brain functioning. Our brains reorganize and recharge during sleep. It is the key for "memory consolidation" which is when new memory segments based on our experiences are transferred into long-term memory. An optimal quantity and quality of sleep enables us to have more energy and well-being. It also allows us to develop our creativity and thinking.

When looking at babies 3 - 12 months of age researchers did note that better sleep was associated with better behavioral outcomes in the first year of life, such as being able to adapt to new situations or regulating emotions efficiently. These are important building blocks for cognition, including cognitive flexibility. This is where we have the ability to shift perspective easily and it is linked to well-being later in life.

There are signs that in adolescents and young adults, poor sleep may be associated with changes in connectivity to sensory information. This is important as our brains are still in development into late adolescence and early young adulthood. Disruptions in this network may therefore have effects on cognition, such as interfering with concentration and memory based processing, as well as more advanced cognitive processing. Alterations in sleep patterns, including difficulty falling and staying asleep, are significant characteristics of the ageing process. These sleep disturbances are highly plausible candidate contributions to cognitive and psychiatric disorders in older people.

So what is the right amount of sleep? The study found that both insufficient and excessive sleep contributed to impaired cognitive performance to a middle-aged to an older population of nearly 500,000 adults. The key finding was that seven hours of sleep per night was optimal, with more or less than that bringing fewer benefits for cognition and mental health. In fact, they found that people who slept that amount performed - on average - better on cognitive tests (including on processing speed visual attention and memory) than those that slept less or more. It was noted that individuals need seven hours of sleep consistently, without too much fluctuation in duration.

We know that we all respond slightly differently to a lack of sleep. There is a relationship between sleep duration, cognition and mental health based on genetics and brain structure. It tends to support other evidence that suggest there is a link between sleep duration and the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

While seven hours of sleep is optimal for protecting against dementia, this study suggests that getting enough sleep can also help alleviate the symptoms of dementia by protecting the memory. A good start is to ensure that the temperature and ventilation in the bedroom is good. It should be airy and cool. One should be careful to not drink too much alcohol and to keep movies, music and books to more of a calmer state. This is to not get our brains on overload. Ideally, we should be calm and relaxed when we are trying to fall asleep. Thinking about something pleasant and relaxing helps. For me, it is my Happy Place, which is at the beach with the sounds of the waves, the warmth of the sun and the sea breezes.

Technological solutions such as apps or wearable devices can also be beneficial for mental health as well as tracking sleep and ensuring consistency of sleep duration. To enjoy life and to function optimally in everyday life, you may want to monitor your own sleep patterns to ensure that you are getting your required hours of sleep on a regular basis. My husband and I use Fitbit technology, however there are many other brands that you can use. 

Another thing that we discovered is when we purchased a particular kind of bed with technology built in that monitors your breathing per minute, how long it took you to fall asleep, your heart rate while asleep and even your heart rate variability which monitors how you deal with stress and your energy level while asleep.

Another fact that I discovered is that 7 hours is not written in stone for every person. Some of us go within the range of 7 - 9 hours. I know. I am one of those people. So, if I miss some sleep (I go by 8 hours for myself) there is something that I can do. By the way, many successful and creative people do this:

Here are some names of just a few of them:

John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Thatcher, Churchill, George W. Bush, Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur...

These people and many others were aware of the benefits of a power nap. Maybe it is just what you may need. I had to tell myself that it is not just ok for me to take my nap but that it is healthy for me. It is a form of self-care.

When all else fails just remember to keep calm and take a nap! It is good for you!

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