For most animals, life is a series of threats one after another: the threat of

  • not making it out of infanthood alive,
  • starvation,
  • getting eaten by a larger animal,
  • losing your family to the elements,
  • being ill-suited to find a mate to begin with

the list goes on and on.

It’s surprising, then, that natural selection would have allowed one-third of our time to be spent unconscious, until you realize the profound value that sleep has for every single aspect of your waking life.

Quality sleep of sufficient duration is no less important to living a healthy life than eating the right foods and getting sun on your skin.

  • Sleep lowers your blood pressure and blood sugar,
  • regulates your hormones,
  • speeds up your metabolism,
  • and strengthens your body.
  • It’s the ultimate antiaging tonic, and nowhere is this truer than what it does for your brain.
  • Sleep promotes alertness,
  • priming your brain to receive
  • and store information,

Sleep loss does the opposite;

Routinely getting four hours of sleep or less can add eight years to your brain’s age in terms of its cognitive performance.

It is now clear that persistently poor sleep can negatively affect every system in the body, and this occurs partly through its effect on metabolism.

Animal studies and human studies alike have shown that reduced sleep duration coincides with reduced insulin sensitivity and worse glucose control.

You produce more insulin (inhibiting the growth hormone discussed here) and your blood sugar is more likely to stay abnormally high when you are under sleep.

One other way that sleep keeps your brain sharp is by bathing it every night, and this cleansing should not be viewed as optional.

Thanks to the glymphatic system, named for the lymphatic system of ducts that it resembles, cerebrospinal fluid swooshes throughout your brain as you sleep, cleansing it of various forms of toxic debris.

Think you can cheat on sleep?

These ducts are hidden during the day, but when you’re sleeping, they swell by up to 60 percent, which makes way for the cleansing fluid.

Among the debris that gets swept up are the two mischievous proteins, amyloid beta, and tau, which form the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

When we’re awake, amyloid and tau are produced in the brain as a by-product of consciousness.

But sleep helps prevent these proteins from sticking around.

We believe this because lack of sleep leads to a sharp increase in their concentrations: on one night of shortened sleep, levels of amyloid beta increase by 30 percent and tau by over 50 percent.

These higher concentrations, measured in cerebrospinal fluid, may increase the odds that the proteins will clump together and aggregate, forming the two hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease.

For a younger person, the prospect of dementia is abstract enough without trying to imagine invisible proteins junking up the brain.

Regardless of age, however, look no further than mental health for proof of the value that sleep holds.

So many of us struggle with issues related to mental health that one in six adults now takes medication to cope, and most do so for the long term.

However, sleep disturbance has been linked to nearly every psychiatric condition, and a growing body of research suggests it may perpetuate depression.

The sleep-depression connection

It may be traced back to an almond-shaped region deep within the brain called the amygdala that processes negative emotions.

Often called the “fear center,” the amygdala helps coordinate the brain’s response to uncertainty because uncertainty always presents the possibility of risk.

When we’re well-slept, the amygdala is kept in check by your brain’s voice of reason, the prefrontal cortex, and only during genuinely threatening events does the prefrontal cortex release its inhibitory effect.

But when we’re sleeping, all bets are off.

An overly sensitive amygdala interprets even minor events as major stressors.

So, it’s not surprising that these structures tend to be more active in people with depression.

What may surprise you, however, is that even one night of poor sleep will make anyone’s amygdala about 60 percent more reactive.

This explains why we get testy without enough sleep, and why our impulses become more difficult to control.

An underslept brain is stuck on high alert, and the best remedy is simply a good night’s sleep.

Getting your Z’s is critical to feeling happier and becoming more stress-resilient, but it may make you more charming to boot.

Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, has looked at the role of sleep debt on social interaction.

He found that not only does sleep debt make you less inclined to socialize, it can act as a social repellent, causing you to send cues that make other people less inclined to socialize with you.

Before turning to alcohol to lubricate social interaction, as is so frequently the case, perhaps we should look first to improving our sleep.

Generally, adults should try to aim for seven to eight hours per night, but try for nine to ten if you are a teen.

Sleep duration is important;

Certain processes are favoured earlier in our slumber, such as deep non-REM sleep, which is when your “brainwashing” occurs.

Others occur later, such as REM sleep, which helps to fortify memory and mental health.

Try to maximize your sleep opportunity nightly to ensure that you can wake up naturally.

And, if an alarm clock is needed, try an app like Sleep Cycle, which can help ease the transition to wakefulness.

When it comes to sleep quality, remember that bright light sometime in the morning is critical.

Ideally, the light comes from the sun, but artificial light, if bright enough, can work, too.

Not only will this lead to earlier production of melatonin, your health-fortifying sleep hormone, but it will allow you to enter sleep more easily at night.

When it comes to your bedroom, keep it cool (about 65°F) and dark.

Research is beginning to show that even low levels of nighttime light (a bright alarm clock display, for example) can pass through your eyelids and disturb sleep quality along with next-day cognitive function.

Consider blackout curtains or even a comfortable eye mask.

Here are a few more tips that may significantly improve your sleep quality:

  • Embrace consistency.

Maximize your sleep opportunity by getting in bed with the intent of going to sleep at the same time every night. And stick to that time; postponing sleep can backfire, causing you to become more alert, thus promoting insomnia.

  • Exercise

Regular exercise boosts sleep quality, and outdoor exercise (with simultaneous exposure to the sun) may have a synergistic effect. But even if you haven’t yet made exercise a regular part of your routine, a single exercise session in the evening (at least two hours before bed) may boost the quality of your sleep.

  • Take a warm shower or bath before bed.

The drop in body temperature once you step out should signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.

  • Try glycine and/or magnesium.

Glycine (introduced here) and magnesium may improve sleep naturally. As a bonus, both are powerfully anti-aging. For deep sleep, try 300 to 500 mg of magnesium glycinate (which is magnesium bound to glycine) and 3 to 4 grams of pure glycine before bed.

  • Use your bed for sleeping and sex only.

As soon as you wake up, get out of bed, and don’t return to it until you want to go to sleep for the night. No eating or burning the midnight oil from bed.

  • Avoid alcohol.

Even though alcohol helps you get to sleep faster, it reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep. If drinking, sober up before bed.

  • Wear blue blockers for two to three hours before bed.

The light from a smartphone, laptop, or television screen can disrupt sleep, leaving you with a “light hangover” the following morning.

  • Set a caffeine curfew.

Limit caffeine consumption to 4 p.m. at the latest maybe even earlier if you are a genetically slow metabolizer.

  • Eat more fiber and omega-3 fats.

Inflammation affects sleep quality, and omega-3 fats (found in cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring) and fiber consumption may promote deeper, more rejuvenating sleep.

  • Stop eating two to three hours before bed.

Ever wake up feeling crummy after a late-night meal? I have. Nocturnal eating can sabotage quality sleep.

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