After a long day, we may find ourselves watching a TV program or scrolling through our smart phones. However, with so many Americans suffering from sleep deprivation, a better night sleep might require a new bedtime routine.
If you need more convincing to turn off the computer and stop checking emails before bed, consider the chemistry behind sleep. When the sun sets and we don’t have any light, our brain picks up on the darkness and signals melatonin production, which aids in helping us feel sleepy.
According to the American Chemical Society, exposure to light prevents melatonin release which keeps us awake. This means the amount of light we’re experiencing before bed impairs our ability to fall asleep.
Eric N. Smernoff, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and manager of neuropsychology at the Baylor AT&T Memory Center. Dr. Smernoff primarily helps with the diagnostics and hands-on evaluation for a number of brain disorders. When interacting with patients, he is able to test specific abilities and capture a snapshot of the brain. This helps to determine brain function in various regions.
Dr. Smernoff says that research is telling us that we are not getting enough sleep, and culturally, we’re all getting less than we really need to be getting. He recommends around eight hours of sleep per night for the average adult.
“If you take the average amount of sleep each person gets, which is eight hours, that’s one-third of your entire day,” Dr. Smernoff said. “We literally spend one-third of our living existence sleeping. That’s how important it is. There’s nothing else you do in your entire life more than sleep.”
Dr. Smernoff has found in his field that adequate sleep is extremely important for restoring healthy brain activity on a daily basis and after an injury or illness, and that a lack of adequate sleep can be a risk factor involved in certain brain disorders.
“Neuroscience is starting to realize sleep deprivation is a risk factor for a lot of neurological diseases. We now know with certain types of dementia, in particular Alzheimer’s dementia, chronic sleep deprivation puts you at increased risk,” Dr. Smernoff said.
Turning off the screens
Dr. Smernoff confirms the chemistry and says when we are exposed to excessive screen time before bed, “Our brain is exposed to too much blue light, which impacts the two nerves that come out of our eyes, known as the optic nerves. These nerves partially traverse or cross, at a place known as the optic chiasm.”
Dr. Smernoff explains there is a group of cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus above this optic nerve crossing, and these cells are very sensitive to activity in the optic nerves. When we are spending time in front of a screen, our brain does not have adequate time to wind down before bed because these cells are affected by the light and don’t signal the brain to produce melatonin.
“When we’re in front of our tablets, TVs and smart phones all the time and especially before bedtime, we’re not giving our brain sufficient time and warning to calm down and produce melatonin to initiate a normal sleep cycle,” he said.
Tips for sleep
Because we devote such a large portion of our life sleeping, we often develop habits around our sleep rituals. If we have poor habits, it may require a change in behavior for about six to eight weeks before you can feel settled in your new routine.
If you’re having trouble with sleep, consider the following suggestions from Dr. Smernoff:
- Wake up at the same time every day—Dr. Smernoff says this is the number one mistake people make. Every human being has their own average sleep they need and our body’s circadian rhythm is greatly affected by the time we wake up. If you’re constantly getting up at different times your body never gets a consistent 24-hour rhythm it needs to function well.
- Reserve the bed for sleeping—if we find ourselves watching TV, reading, or doing other activates in our bedroom it may confuse our mind. It is simple behavioral conditioning for our brain to know that when we get into our bedroom, it is dark and we are ready for sleep.
- Exercise—Staying physically active has enormous benefits across the entire health spectrum, and sleeping is no exception. Sleep, exercise and brain health are all closely related.
- Break bad habits—if you’re getting up at night to look at the clock, cover it with a washcloth. If you’re getting up to use the restroom, cut out all liquids after 5 p.m. If you’re drinking excessive amounts of caffeine (more than 400 milligrams), you may need to find another way to increase your energy throughout your day. Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees. Sleep in complete darkness.
Whatever efforts we need to take to improve our sleep, our brain will thank us for it. Plus, why not make one-third of our life on earth a restful one.
For more information about brain health and sleep, check out our recommended sleep positions, 7 days to better sleep and myths about insomnia.