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Pillow talk Heals

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Pillow Talk: Healing Body and Mind While You Sleep

Was getting eight hours of sleep a night at the top of your New Year’s resolution list this past year? A good night’s sleep is as essential to your health as maintaining healthy nutrition and exercise habits. Sleep, a far from passive state, induces repair functions throughout the body and promotes physical and mental health (1).

There is even evidence that sleep can maintain a healthy brain as we age. Scientists at the University of Rochester have found incredible associations between the brain, sleep, and clearing toxins (2). Their research has identified a nocturnal plumbing system called the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system clears potentially harmful substances that may cause neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, out of the brain – but this clearing only occurs while we are sleeping.

Inadequate sleep is linked to many health problems including increased risk of developing heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (1,3). Sleep deprivation increases our propensity to developing the common cold (1,3). Lack of sleep also lowers our pain threshold, increasing our perception of pain. While full-blown disease states seem to emerge after years of poor sleep, immediate ill-effects like insulin resistance can be seen after only one night of sleep deprivation. Sleep is also fundamental for our emotional well being (4). Without adequate rest, you may find your reactions unpredictable, your thinking impaired, and your perceived happiness running on empty.

How can better sleep improve your mood and behavior?

Calm Your Emotional Seas

Chronically poor sleep can increase your risk of depression and anxiety disorders (6,7). But, before rising to the level of mental illness, poor sleep can impair emotional control and cause mood disturbances in healthy individuals (4,5). When sleep-deprived, you may feel more stressed, react poorly to situations that you would typically take in stride, and struggle to cope with change. Your emotional resilience is hampered.

New research is digging deeper into neurological underpinnings of the relationship between sleep deprivation and emotional reactivity, offering insights into why you might ‘fly off the handle’ easily after a poor night’s rest.

In a 2009 study at UC Berkeley, researchers found that sleep-deprived individuals exposed to emotionally disturbing images showed 60% more reactivity in the brain’s deep emotional centers than non-sleep deprived individuals shown the same images (8). This increased activity in the amygdala region may hijack higher cognitive processes in the prefrontal cortex while prompting the release of stress hormones.

Other researchers, replicating the amygdala dysfunction observed in previous studies, found that the regulatory communication between this emotional center and neighboring brain regions seems to break down in sleep-deprived research subjects. The breakdown induced by a lack of sleep impacts your ability to judge what is truly emotionally important (9). Perhaps this communication breakdown accounts for our emotional overreactions when we are tired.

Recharge Your Willpower

Kelly McGonigal at Stanford has shown that sleep deprivation can negatively impact our willpower and make us more susceptible to addictive behaviors (10,11). Similar to having a few glasses of wine, sleep deprivation reduces prefrontal cortex control over cravings and impairs self-control. Even one hour of sleep deprivation per night makes us more likely to struggle to quit an addictive habit. However, these willpower deficits can be fixed. After a night of better sleep, brain scans of previously sleep-deprived subjects show improved prefrontal cortex control.

Learn Better

Dreams may give us a chance to rehearse our day and process our emotional lives. Cognitive science demonstrates that sleep is essential for learning and memory (12). REM, or dreaming sleep, helps you to consolidate the lessons of your day, while other slow-wave sleep stages help you fine-tune motor skills and encode visual memories. To capitalize on enhanced memory consolidation, try playing the piano right before bed if you want to better remember that new song. If you have a presentation to give the next morning, review it right before you lay your head down at night.

When tired, our poor mood makes it more difficult to learn and later recall new information. Our behavior also takes a hit. In a sleep deficient state, our decision making and problem-solving capacities are impaired. With impaired judgment, we may have difficulty acting in ways that truly align with our purpose and principles.

Tips for Sleep Hygiene

It’s easy to dismiss sleep hygiene when the pressures of work and family keep you up late. But remember, the chronic impairment of willpower, emotional control, and higher cognitive abilities is likely to impact our parenting, our interactions with our partners, and our social interactions at work. It can affect our overall decision-making. If you want to show up fully for yourself and those around you, invest in a good night’s sleep.

I’m the first to acknowledge that poor sleep habits are hard to break. Try starting with these small but steady changes:

  • Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Sure, there are individual differences, but most studies, including a large review conducted recently by the National Sleep Foundation, find that the sleep requirement for most healthy adults falls into this range (13).

  • Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern throughout the week, getting up and going to bed at around the same time each day. This helps to create an established circadian rhythm. Trying to make up for lost sleep during the week on weekends does not work.

  • Establish a relaxing pre-sleep routine. This might include jotting down a to-do list that you can commit to taking care of in the morning. Getting your worries on paper helps you not fret about upcoming tasks during the night.

  • Optimize your sleep environment. Try sleeping in a cool room, free of artificial light sources. That means leaving your cellphone and laptop outside the bedroom door.

Sleep replenishes our body and soul, and there is even evidence that sleep is also a time when neurotoxins might be cleared away. In order to help us operate with peak physical and emotional resilience, take advantage of this precious resource by prioritizing regular, healthy sleep habits.


1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2012, Feb 22). Why Is Sleep Important? Retrieved from 2. Nedergaard Lab. Glymphatic System. Retrieved from 3. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (2008, Jan 16). Sleep and Health. Get Sleep. Retrieved from 4. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (2008, Dec 15) Sleep and Mood. Get Sleep. Retrieved from 5. Anderson, P. (2007, Oct 25). Sleep Deprivation Leads to Emotional Instability Even in Healthy Subjects. Medscape Medical News. Retrieved from 6. Weissman, M.M., Greenwald S., Niño-Murcia G., & Dement W.C. (1997). The Morbidity of Insomnia Uncomplicated by Psychiatric Disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry 19(4). Retrieved from 7. Neckelmann, D., Mykletun, A., & Dahl, A.A. (2007). Chronic Insomnia as a Risk Factor for Developing Anxiety and Depression. Sleep 30(7). Retrieved from 8. Walker, M.P., & Van Der Helm E. (2009). Overnight Therapy? The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Processing. Psychological Bulletin 135(5) Retrieved from 9. Simon, E. B., Oren N., Sharon, H., Kirschner, A., Goldway, N., Okon-Singer, H. Tauman, R., Deweese, M.M., Keil, A. and Hendler, T. (2015). Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep. Journal of Neuroscience 35(38) Retrieved from 10. Steakley, L. (2011, Dec 29). The Science of Willpower. Scope at Stanford Medicine. Retrieved from 11. McGonigal, Kelly. (2012). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery. 12. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. (2007, Dec 18). Sleep, Learning, and Memory. Get Sleep. Retrieved from 13. National Sleep Foundation. (2016). How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? Retrieved from

*Disclaimer: The sole purpose of this content is to educate and inform. Please note that none of the content on this website constitutes medical, psychotherapeutic, or other professional advice or services. We provide consultations and require that all patients be followed closely by their primary care provider. 

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