The Truth About Sleep and Your Brain


Let's face it: a good night's sleep seems to be harder and harder to come by these days.

With "always-on" connections and media such as mobile phones, email, text messages, on-demand TV, new music/shows/magazines/updates, and obsessive web site checking -- there are more elements constantly begging for our attention than at any time in history.

And then there's the explosion of caffeinated beverage consumption, some of which have dietary health benefits as we've discussed in previous BrainReady features, but on the flip side may not be doing your sleeping habits a favor.

So, is adequate sleep important, really? Will getting that extra hour or two of additional sleep really make a tangible impact on my day-to-day life? And now that I'm older, do I really need as much sleep as I did when I was younger?

The answers are resoundingly YES, YES, and YES: if you care at all about your mental performance, brain health, physical health, emotional health, and overall wellness of being, then there's simply no way around making adequate sleep a top priority. Period. And we're not talking about just "optimal" performance here. Even your ability to do the most basic tasks and mental activities throughout your typical day are greatly, tangibly affected by whether or not you've had enough sleep.

"Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do high-level [thinking] tasks," according to Dr. J. Christian Gillin, MD. "It may have serious consequences both on performance and on the way your brain functions."

Gillin's team at the University of California, San Diego, and the San Diego VA Medical Center found that the brains of some sleep-deprived study participants tried to overcome the language-center shut-down by shifting activity to another part of the brain. These individuals performed better on the memory test than their sleep-deprived peers, but not as well as they did when rested. "What this shows is that the brain is very flexible," says Monte S. Buchsbaum, MD, professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "This shows that the brain can move a task from one area to the other when you are sleep deprived, or when you get old."

Bottom line: a sleepy person's brain works harder -- and accomplishes less.

That's interesting, and shows what an amazing, adaptive entity the brain is: in a person who is sleep-deprived, one part of the brain shuts down while other parts will kick in to help compensate. However, amazing as that may be, regardless of the brain's attempt to overcome sleep deprivation, a sleep-deprived person cannot perform mental tasks as well as someone who is well-rested. In short, there's no way around getting a good night's sleep if you want your brain to perform as it should.

And now for the age-old question: how much sleep do I need?

Jim Horne, PhD, director of the sleep research laboratory at Loughborough University in England, has a surprisingly simple, intuitive answer: "The amount of sleep we require is what we need not to be sleepy in the daytime," he says.

For most adults, that's usually 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, with most adults requiring a full 8.5 hours of sleep to be "fully rested and recovered", most research studies have shown. But (like most other health areas) the specific optimal amount varies from person to person depending on the complex combination of such factors as physical exercise and activity, diet, whether the sleep is interrupted or prone to waking, and other factors.

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, and something that you can apply to your own habits right away, is the finding that the EARLY part of your sleep is the most important for brain recovery:  Dr. Horne notes,  "Not all of sleep is for recovery. A particular part of sleep occurring in the early part of sleep is most important for [brain] recovery, and the latter part is not so important in that regard," he says. This is important to understand, because those occasional "sleeping in" binges may not be compensating for your otherwise unhealthy sleep habits, nor giving your brain the recovery it needs in order to perform as it otherwise could.

Getting into the habit of going to bed earlier each night, and sticking to it, is far more likely to give your brain the rest it needs compared to staying up later and trying to extend your morning sleep.

But do older people need as much sleep? Simply put, yes: the myth that older people need less sleep than younger adults is just that, a myth. Regardless of your age, your brain needs, and continues to need, adequate (7 to 9 hours for most people) sleep every night in order to recover and perform optimally.

Okay, but come on: is getting 8.5 hours of sleep really important compared to other things I could be doing? I seem to feel "okay" when I get 5 or 6 hours, so what's the big deal?

Let's put it this way: many of us spend a lot of time and effort and money on healthy foods, vitamins, supplements, gym memberships, and now brain exercises, in order to eek-out as much health and well-being and performance out of our minds and bodies as we can, ultimately to make our daily lives feel better and last longer. But if you're not getting adequate sleep, it's literally like undoing or going backwards against all of those things that you work so hard on -- you can be loaded with antioxidants and exercise and health foods yet still feel sluggish, dull, irritable, sad, lazy, confused, all thanks to not having had enough sleep! The effects are real, and you know what they are, as you've surely felt them.

Fortunately the solution is also real, not to mention simple, enjoyable and FREE: Make going to bed earlier and generally making adequate, uninterrupted sleep a priority item in your life, in your daily routine...and reap the brain & overall health benefits that you'll literally feel. Once you have a base of healthy sleep habits, adding physical exercise, mental exercise, a healthy diet and healthy relationships with others will all work synergistically together to foster TRUE optimum health.

There's something to that old adage, "the healthiest people go to bed with the sunset and wake up with the sunrise". And intuitively, from a holistic human species standpoint looking across the majority of time since human beings have existed, there were no electric lights or televisions or computer screens casting light after the sun went down until VERY recently; chemical processes in the brain signal the brain to get sleepy when it gets dark; we humans used to sleep when it got dark, all the way until it became light again, every night.


So do your brain a favor -- head to bed earlier tonight, and start experiencing one of the easiest ways to boost your mental performance and overall health: make sleep a priority.

Let us know how YOU feel after getting back to healthy sleep habits again: share your thoughts & findings by emailing us at

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