We already knew that sleep gives your brain a much-needed break from the stresses of the day, rejuvenates your mind, and processes emotions.
But a study from the University of Rochester provides the first direct evidence for why your brain actually needs you to sleep. It found that when you sleep, your brain eliminates toxic proteins that are byproducts of neural activity when you're awake. When you don't get enough sleep, these toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, wreaking havoc by impairing your ability to think--something no amount of caffeine can fix.
Skipping sleep impairs your brain function across the board. It slows your ability to process information and solve problems, kills your creativity, catapults your stress levels, and decreases your memory recollection and retention.
Here are some ways to get your sleep back on track:
1. Don't work too late.
When you work late into the evening, it puts you into a stimulated, alert state when you should be winding down and relaxing in preparation for sleep. Don't do any tasks after a certain time. Make sure you set aside some time to relax before bedtime to ensure yourself a good night's sleep.
2. No caffeine after 3 p.m.
Many sleep-deprived people drink coffee or another caffeinated drink all day to keep their stamina up, but caffeine stays in your system for around seven hours, so afternoon caffeine can interfere with sleep patterns. If you can't cut caffeinated drinks out altogether, try to avoid them in the afternoon. And even though alcohol can help you fall asleep, it can also cause you to wake up periodically through the night, so keep it in moderation as well.
3. Shut down your screens.
There's a growing body of evidence that the comforting blue light coming from your phone, tablet, or laptop is decreasing your levels of melatonin, the hormone that triggers sleep. Chronically suppressed melatonin levels have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. Once you're within a couple of hours of bedtime, shut down the screens and read a book instead.
4. Seek daylight.
Researchers found that people who work in offices with no windows nearby sleep an average of 46 fewer minutes per night than those with a window. Natural light fosters production of melatonin. At least two to three hours of natural light a day will help you sleep. Work near a window if possible, and if not, try to spend some time outdoors every day.
5. Stop thinking of sleep deprivation as productivity.
Do you brag to people about how little sleep you need, as if it makes you a better worker or more committed leader? According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, any short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep for work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come.
6. Let go of worry.
If you're worried about not getting enough sleep, that prevents you from, well, getting enough sleep. That's true of any form of worry. Before you go to sleep, write down any sources of stress. If you have a to-do list, cross off what you've accomplished that day, and write down the tasks you need to do the next day. This way, you'll find it easier to relax because you're not worrying about forgetting important things while you should be sleeping.
7. Turn off the TV.
Instead of watching the news, spend some time in meditation or listen to soothing music that allows you to drift off to sleep instead of being worried. Watching TV before bed, or worse yet, falling asleep to the TV, is not conducive to a good night's sleep. Turn off the TV at least 30 minutes before bed, then spend some time relaxing. Reading a book or magazine is a great way to prepare for sleep.
8. Don't go by how sleepy you feel.
Research at the University of Pennsylvania found that after two weeks of getting only four hours of sleep a night, people felt only slightly sleepy. Your body may adjust, but the cognitive impairments and other risks are unchanged.
9. Build overall good health habits.
Sleep is part of an overall health plan that should also include exercise, a good diet, and regular health care.
There's no question that when we get enough sleep, everything is better: our health, our mental capacity and clarity, our joy in living, and our ability to live life positively instead of just reacting to things as they happen.
If you find yourself in bad moods, unproductive, or not as effective or energetic as you need to be, go catch some z's.