How Sleep Strengthens Our Memories

Do you ever have trouble remembering things?

As we age, many of us experience memory issues. The classic one that happens with all of us is walking into a room to do something. And then forgetting what that thing was.

Trying hard to remember something usually involves deep concentration. And often it doesn’t work. Maybe instead we should get some sleep.

How would being asleep help us remember something? It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Getting the proper amount of sleep – including quality sleep – can aid our memories.

Brains Work While We Sleep

While we sleep, our brains produce activation patterns. Two of those patterns are slow oscillations and sleep spindles. They are half-second to two-second bursts of oscillatory brain activity.

When they combine, those bursts reactivate previous experiences. The stronger the reactivation, the clearer our memories of those experiences are.

Dr. Bernhard Staresina is co-author of a study on this subject. He works at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology in the United Kingdom. Here’s what he said.

“Our main means of strengthening memories while we sleep is the reactivation of previously learnt information. Which allows us to solidify memories in neocortical long-term stores.”    

Lack of Sleep = Groggy & Irritable

For many of us, it’s been too long since we’ve had a great night’s sleep. It often takes us too long to fall asleep. We frequently wake up several times each night. And it takes a while for us to get back to sleep.

When we roll out of bed in the morning, instead of feeling fresh and alert, we’re slow and groggy. Later in the day, we’re irritable. We know why – we didn’t get that good night’s sleep the previous night that we used to get.   

Most people aren’t sleeping well these days. Stress is a big factor. Four out of five say they suffer from sleep problems at least once a week. And wake up feeling exhausted.

More than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness. It’s severe enough to interfere with daily activities at least a few days each month.

A Problem With a Solution

It’s estimated that more than one-half of the U.S. population will experience a sleep disorder during their lives. For many, these disorders last a long time.

For those 50 years of age and older, it gets worse. No matter what time we go to bed, both falling asleep and staying asleep are challenging. When we do sleep, we often don’t get enough deep sleep that’s so healthy for our bodies and brains.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs don’t always work well. When they do, they can leave people groggy and drowsy after they get up. Either way, in addition to being tired and cranky, these people now have less money in their wallets.

Fortunately, we now know the science behind why people have sleep problems. We understand what causes the issues. And what we can do to help alleviate them. There are natural, healthy, scientifically studied supplements to help us.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

This is a question without a definitive answer. It varies for individuals. There’s no way to mathematically determine how much sleep is necessary for optimal health.

The National Institutes of Health recommends a range. They suggest that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

As a comparison, newborns can sleep up to 16 to 18 hours per day. Preschool children usually sleep between 10 and 12 hours a day. Older school children and teenagers should get at least nine hours.

One way to determine the right number of hours of sleep per night for you is asking yourself this question. When I get only seven hours of sleep, do I feel productive, healthy and happy? Or do I need nine hours to get into high gear?

Tips & Tricks for Better Sleep

The Sleep Foundation (yes, there really is such a thing) recommends the following ways to improve your quality of sleep:

  •  Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends. This is helpful for regulating your body’s clock. It can result in falling asleep quicker and staying asleep longer.
  •  Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual different from what you normally do. It should be conducted away from noise, lights and anything causing stress.
  •  Avoid afternoon naps. A power nap can help you tackle afternoon tasks better. But they can also rob you of much needed sleep at night.
  • Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is best. But even moderate exercise can tire out your body and make it sleep-ready.
  •  Try to keep your bedroom between 60-67 degrees. And free of noise. Some benefit from blackout curtains, earplugs, eyeshades and “white noise” machines.
  • Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow. If your neck hurts when you wake up, your pillow might be too thick or thin.
  • Beware of hidden sleep stealers. Such as alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol consumption will take you longer to get into quality sleep. Caffeine could keep you awake longer. Also avoid large and spicy meals.
  • Turn off electronics before going to bed. The light emanating from a television or computer screen can make you more awake when you want to wind down.
  • In the morning, expose yourself to sunlight when possible. This will help keep your circadian rhythm in check.

For better brain health and memory, getting plenty of quality sleep is a great first step.

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