The importance of Sleep

Scientists once thought that sleep was needed in order to rest the mind and body. It is now known that sleep is in fact a pre-requisite for thought processes and creativity. In particular, sleep is needed to consolidate our memories and help the brain to organize information to improve recall and other functions.

Sleep and memory

Napping and regular night sleep have been shown to enhance memory and learning. Science has found that people who lack sleep are unable to focus or concentrate on tasks and that learning is limited and lacking.

People who sleep well especially after learning have better memories and better recall than those who have poor sleep. Sleep helps to consolidate memories which is necessary in learning new information.

The ability to remember and learn is defined by three functions of the brain:

• Acquisition – This is when the brain is presented with new information

• Consolidation - is when the brain memorizes the new information

• Recall – is when the brain is able to remember this new information

Memory is incomplete without these three steps. Research suggests that the consolidation phase occurs during sleep, so a lack of sleep would interfere with this process leading to poor recall.

Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on memory, resulting in confusion and poor recall of events and important information. It is essential that anyone who wants to improve their brain function should have sufficient sleep.

It is no co-incidence then that babies sleep an extraordinary amount and nap during the day. It is a fact that 80% of a person’s learning is done during the first 5 years of life, as a baby learns to walk, talk, crawl and do the simplest of tasks. Newborns need around 18 hours of sleep during the early days, and over the course of the first year, it lessens to around 15 hours. By the age of 3, children need around 12-13 hours sleep a night. This gradually lessens as the child gets older.

Adults are recommended to have a minimum of 7-8 hours sleep a night. Sleep deprivation has a serious impact on both children and adults. Children who do not get adequate rest during the night struggle with concentration and tasks requiring them to learn and remember new things.

The same is true of adults. Poor memory is often associated with a lack of good quality sleep.

Sleep and Brain Activity

During sleep, your brain is active and goes through various phases including a period of increased activity. As you dip in and out of light and deep sleep interspersed with dream sleep and REM sleep, your brain increases in activity at certain points.

REM means rapid eye movement. REM sleep is a period of sleep when you can actually see a person’s eyes darting around during sleep. It is thought that this particular type of sleep is responsible for storing information learnt throughout the day. It is as if the mind is filing away all important information in its designated stores.

In particular, REM sleep is associated with what is known as procedural memory. This type of memory is task related (such as a ‘how to’ task like driving a car).

There is numerous evidence to support the fact that sleeping after learning something new actually enhances learning and makes it easier to recall information when awake.

More often than not, people who ‘sleep on it’ are full of creativity and new ideas the next day, or after a nap. It is as if the mind has had a chance to ponder the information and link it to something new.

One of the aspects of improving your mind and the ability to enhance your learning is allowing yourself the chance to ‘sleep on it.’ Get into the habit of keeping a notepad and pen next to your bed for those middle of the night strokes of genius.

Also, if you do not sleep at least 7-8 hours daily, you need to schedule in a nap during the day and start getting into the habit of sleeping at the same time every day. It is essential that you get adequate rest in order to keep brain function at an optimum level.

Ways to Help You Sleep Better

Here are some tips to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep, whatever your age.

• Make a regular bedtime and stick to it – your body has its own internal body clock. If your sleeping and waking times are highly irregular, your body becomes confused, leading to poor sleep. Sleeping the same time and waking around the same time everyday gets your body clock in sync and makes it easier to sleep well

• Relax in the evenings and don’t do anything to over-stimulate your mind or body such as strenuous exercise. It makes it harder for your mind to switch off

• Take a warm bath and preferably use lavender essential oil in the bath or a lavender bath soak. It will help to calm and relax you, inducing sleep

• Create a cozy sleep environment – clean fresh sheets, a nice plump pillow, a firm mattress, soft duvet and a clean room all help make an inviting environment which is conducive to sleep

• Read a good book – not only will it calm and relax you, it gives you a good distraction from daily life, and is particularly beneficial for those of you who find it hard to switch off when you go to bed

• Drink a warm milky drink – this is a weird one, but it works. It evokes childhood memories of milk as the last drink you had as a baby before sleep. It is comforting and relaxing, so excellent before bedtime

• Eat a banana. These contain tryptophan – a chemical which helps you to sleep. One food which isn’t well known as a sleep inducer is lettuce, but it does work. Ensure your last meal includes a salad with lettuce in it

• Avoid alcohol and caffeine as they are stimulants and keep you alert. Also avoid chocolate as this too can have a stimulating effect

• If you are a serial worrier and lie awake at night thinking too much, then STOP! Before bedtime, allocate yourself a ‘worry time’ of say 20 minutes or so and scribble down all the things concerning you. Then stop worrying, get stuck into a good book. It really does help

• Invest in blackout curtains if you are woken by early morning sunrises. The darker the room the easier it is to sleep and the longer you will sleep

• Deal with stresses during the day. It is well known that stress is a major cause of insomnia. Find ways to deal with it and sleep better in days

• Get intimate! It really helps to relax your body and focus your energy elsewhere, easing you into sleep

• Have a massage – for those lucky enough to have a partner, a soothing massage of either the head or back really helps to relax the body, especially if you use long, slow strokes

• Sprinkle lavender essential oil onto your pillow – it has a sedative effect and helps to calm and relax you

Hopefully the above suggestions will enable you to sleep better and for longer. Good sleep means better brain function. If you have to, schedule an early night at least twice a week and get the rest you need.

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