“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep.”  – Aldous Huxley



We know sleep is important and we know we feel better when we get more of it but getting enough sleep can be tough these days when there is so much to do and so many roles to play. However, according to recent sleep studies you may be doing more harm than good by burning the midnight oil – specifically regarding how your brain holds onto the information it takes in.

There are three stages of learning and memory:
Acquisition – (awake): Taking in the information that we want to learn and use.
Consolidation – (asleep): The process that stabilizes the information in the brain so that it can be called upon in the future
Recall – (awake): Accessing the information that has been stored.

As you can see, while most of our memories are received and used during our waking hours it is our sleeping hours that solidify them for recall and shuffle them from the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory to the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory. Without sleep we cannot retain the information effectively for later use.

Dr. Robert Strickgold, Division of Sleep Medicine – Harvard, points out that in addition to moving sensory input from one part of the brain to the other sleep also strengthens the connections between the brain cells that hold that information. In fact, studies are showing that sleep deprivation actually overworks our neurons which weakens them over time meaning they become unable to coordinate what we’ve learned or experienced in a way that makes the information accessible later on.

The spill over affects of sleep on memory also mean that we become unable to appropriately interpret new information or assess the conditions of our circumstances. Considering how many quick and crucial decisions we can be faced with in a day this can greatly affect our quality of work, quality of life and even worse…put us in danger.

So, how much sleep do you need?
While the amount of sleep necessary for optimal cognitive health varies from one person to the next the range really is between 8 and 10 hours each night. You can find your optimum amount by keeping track of how focused you feel during the day after a specific amount of sleep. Keep in mind that other things can drain your focus during the day like processed foods, refined sugars and additives.

Tips for a great night’s sleep:

  • Keep the use of your bed reserved for intimacy and sleep – maybe light reading if it calms your mind. When you habitually work in bed you create a muscle memory in your body and brain that says the bed signals an activation of the mind, not relaxation. This can lead to a mind that just won’t shut up long enough for you to sleep or a mind that wakes you up before you get to the deep sleep necessary to improve learning and memory.
  • Make sure you’re chock-full of nutrients. In order for your body to repair and rejuvenate itself during sleep as it should it needs nutrients and fuel. This comes from eating a clean diet of nutrient-rich foods like dark greens, vegetables, legumes and nuts. Too much starch, simple carbs and processed foods create spikes and dips in your sugar levels that make it harder to sleep.
  • Decaffeinated teas served warm, especially as a bedtime ritual, can help calm your body and mind preparing both for rest.
  • Lavender has also been touted throughout the ages as an effective sleep aid either in tea, potpourri or by adding the oil to boiling water within sniffing distance.
  • Meditate, deep breathe or stretch before bedtime. All of these access your para-sympathetic nervous system mimicking sleep and signaling your body and brain that it is time for calm. (If you didn’t get the recordings for pain and anxiety reduction when you signed up for my newsletter email me and I’ll send the links).

Overall, just take good care of yourself and if there’s an opportunity to deprive yourself of sleep or good food for the sake of convenience, look a little longer term view and instead treat yourself to healthy choices. Your attention span and learning curve will thank you.