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How Good Sleep Keeps Your Brain Healthy

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Research on the neuroscience of sleep shows us that good sleep is an exquisite system of coordinated brain activity that improves daily cognitive function, removes waste products from the brain, and supports mental and physical health. All mammals require sleep, from complex multicellular organisms like us, to small, simpler organisms like nematodes.

Sleep plays an important role in many of our bodily functions and systems such as:

  • Immune system health

  • Mood and attention

  • Gastrointestinal health

  • Cardiovascular health

  • Metabolic health

Poor quality sleep is associated with multiple negative health effects, so understanding how to fall asleep easily and stay asleep soundly is critical.

Why do we need a good night’s sleep?

Quality of sleep impacts almost everything we do in our daily lives, and evolutionarily speaking, the fact that we sleep at all is highly curious, as the specific functions and pathways that sleep act upon are still somewhat unclear. Each night (or day with mammals who sleep during the day) mammals all over the world essentially take their brains offline and essentially put themselves in a vulnerable state to restore, renew and even dream. Sleeping must be a vital health promoting function for animals to risk putting themselves in danger by essentially becoming vulnerable to prey.

However, it is through understanding the negative consequences of poor sleep that we begin to unravel how essential sleep is. Individuals with a regulated circadian rhythm, or daily sleep wake cycle, often perform better on multiple tasks, and a lot of this can be attributed to the specific brain health benefits of each of the sleep stages. You nights sleep is divided into four distinct phases:

  • Stage 1: drowsy, surface level, the beginning of sleep (8 - 13 Hz)

  • Stage 2: interesting brain activity here when measured by EEG, characterized by small clusters of activity known as sleep spindles. (10 - 15 Hz oscillations)

  • Stage 3: moderate deep sleep, spindles still occur but characterized by prolonged periods of low amplitude waves. (2 - 4 Hz)

  • Stage 4: low frequency, but high amplitude waves known as delta waves occur here. (0.5 - 2 Hz)

Interspersed throughout the stages are periods of deep sleep known as rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). Notably, REM sleep stages are characterized by brain activity remarkably similar to awake states.

REM sleep states have been investigated for their role in improving learning and memory, but its broader effects on overall processing ability are still unclear. What is clear is how devastating a lack of sleep, or insomnia, is on the brain. Neurodegeneration and hormonal imbalances are correlated with poor quality sleep in addition to reduced attention, memory, and disruptions of mood.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT-I) is awesome for improving sleep

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a tool used by mental health specialists to disrupt the negative thought patterns that underlie many psychological ailments; in combination with pharmacological interventions, CBT has been proven to improve cognitive functioning and overall mental wellness in patients experiencing psychiatric distress.

With regards to sleep disorders, CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) techniques are effective in changing maladaptive thought processes that prevent patients from achieving quality sleep. For example, many people suffering from insomnia report that the anxiety of needing a good night’s sleep actually interferes with their ability to fall asleep -- cognitive roadblocks like these are especially susceptible to being changed through CBT-I. Changing the thought patterns that cause these types of disruptions can make all the difference in improving sleep.

Behavioral methods under the umbrella of CBT-I can also be helpful for improving sleep by changing or reframing the behaviors that cause insomnia. For instance, many sleep specialists will recommend that individuals not use their bedroom for anything but sleep and intimacy, and keep all distractions such as work and television in other areas of the home. Techniques like these improve sleep hygiene and reframe the role of sleep in patients’ lives.

How can I improve my sleep? Some helpful tips for getting better sleep.

The importance of sleep to health is clear, so much so that improving sleep duration and quality is the goal of many health practitioners in treating concurrent health conditions. Depression, obesity and heart disease are only some of the negative health effects associated with insomnia.

Many sleep specialists will recommend that patients take a hard look at their habits leading up to sleep, also known as sleep hygiene. These habits include:

  • Going to bed at a consistent time each night.

  • Waking up at the same time each morning. Some studies show that this is more important than bedtime consistency.

  • Ensuring your room is quiet and dark. Use comfortable, breathable, cotton or linen sheets.

  • Remove electronic devices and bright lights from your immediate surroundings.

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages before sleep.

  • Increase frequency of exercise during your morning routine.

Luckily, there are many avenues for treating insomnia to help patients get better sleep, and they range from pharmaceutical interventions to non-invasive, therapeutic techniques. However, sleep medications commonly prescribed in the US are often criticized for making the residual effects of sleep deprivation worse during waking hours, despite improved time to sleep. These interventions are known to interfere with sleep cycling. Thus, non-pharmacological interventions have been proposed as effective alternatives including everything from hypnotherapy, talk therapy, and especially cognitive-behavioral therapy.

It is important to treat your sleep as a critical component of health, and to loop your physician in if you are experiencing sleep disruptions. Common sleep disorders such as sleep apnea are known to affect daily functioning, for instance.

You can start reclaiming your sleep right now by:

  • Monitoring the signs of sleep apnea: ask anyone who has seen you sleep if you snore, and if they have noticed your breathing stop.

  • Asking your physician to order a sleep study: a sleep study will clarify whether or not your sleep cycles are being disrupted. Sleep study devices monitor breathing, heart rate, and decibels to determine whether your snoring is causing significant harm to your breathing.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene: give yourself all the tools to succeed and maintain healthy sleep habits.

  • Consider CBT for insomnia: sleep is a product of healthy habits both physical and cognitive; seeking CBT-I as another method for alleviating insomnia can equip you with many of the tools you need to achieve optimal sleep. You can even access these services through an online model.

As you age, a good night’s sleep is especially important. It helps to improve various cognitive skills like concentration and memory formation, refreshes your immune system and repairs cellular damage which may have occurred during the day. which in turn helps to prevent disease. Your brain is constantly changing, adapting, and learning and without high-quality sleep, your brain lacks the tools it needs to function well during waking hours or optimize healing. Without good sleep we lose the opportunity to process and consolidate memories. Healthy and consistent sleep allows you to integrate memories, heal traumas and work through daily conflicts through dreamtime and deep rest. Without good sleep we are likely not integrating our conflicts and healing our old traumas as well as we would with consistent sleep time and dreamtime. Sleep disorders need out full attention, and finding the solutions to correct them can be challenging. Through understanding the particulars of your sleep challenges, getting well diagnosed and treated and employing CBT-I principles, a more rested next day is possible!


Fitzgerald, Timothy, and Jeffrey Vietri. “Residual Effects of Sleep Medications Are Commonly Reported and Associated with Impaired Patient-Reported Outcomes among Insomnia Patients in the United States.” Sleep disorders vol. 2015 (2015): 607148. doi:10.1155/2015/607148

Goel, Namni et al. “Circadian rhythms, sleep deprivation, and human performance.” Progress in molecular biology and translational science vol. 119 (2013): 155-90. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-396971-2.00007-5

Gonzales, D.L., Zhou, J., Fan, B. et al. A microfluidic-induced C. elegans sleep state. Nat Commun10, 5035 (2019).

Peever, John, and Patrick M Fuller. “Neuroscience: A Distributed Neural Network Controls REM Sleep.” Current biology : CB vol. 26,1 (2016): R34-5. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.011

Peter, Lukas et al. “Effectiveness of an Online CBT-I Intervention and a Face-to-Face Treatment for Shift Work Sleep Disorder: A Comparison of Sleep Diary Data.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 16,17 3081. 24 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/ijerph16173081

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Van Someren, E.J., Cirelli, C., Dijk, D.J., Van Cauter, E., Schwartz, S. and Chee, M.W., Disrupted sleep: from molecules to cognition. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(41), pp. 13889–13895 (2015)

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