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  • Insomnia and Brain Health

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    Insomnia and Brain Health

    This post is by guest writer Farid Alsabeh.

    How poor sleep is harming your brain

    At the end of a long and tiresome day, we come to bed like its devoted friend. We sleep blissfully, straight through the night. And when we wake up, we feel refreshed and energized, ready to take on whatever the new day brings.

    But for some of us, this description is nothing but a much-desired fantasy. For one reason or another, our quality of sleep is severely diminished. This condition is known as insomnia, and it causes more than just frustration. Poor sleep has been shown to have detrimental effects on our brain health.

    Regular sleeping patterns and its functions


    Our late-night drowsiness is conditioned by the circadian rhythm, a biochemical clock which determines our level of activity. Decreased sunlight causes a chemical called melatonin to be secreted in a region of our brain called the pineal gland, which causes us to become sleepy.

    Once we’re asleep, we cycle through multiple 90-minute phases. During deep sleep, our body is mostly quiet. By contrast, during rapid-eye movement sleep, our bodies are in a state of near-wakefulness. In total, researchers agree that adults need a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

    Sleep has a number of important functions. First, it helps us consolidate memories and facilitates learning. Secondly, deep-sleep specifically has been shown to improve our immune system. Finally, sleep is an opportunity for our body to repair the wear and tear of daily life.

    How insomnia disrupts regular sleep patterns


    Insomnia is defined broadly as poor quality of sleep. This can take three general forms, which include:

    Delayed onset of asleep. You go to bed, fully prepared to turn in. But despite your best efforts, your mind remains active. You toss and turn, unable to fall asleep.

    Interrupted sleep. Although you may manage to fall asleep, you will have trouble staying asleep. You will wake up frequently throughout the night, and may have trouble falling back asleep.

    Unfulfilling sleep. Even if you manage to fall and stay asleep, you may wake up in the morning not feeling as refreshed as you wanted.

    In addition to the forms that insomnia can take, there are also two major kinds of insomnia. Secondary insomnia is insomnia caused by another condition, such as stress or depression. By contrast, primary insomnia is insomnia which isn’t associated with any other condition.

    How insomnia affects the brain

    Whatever form it takes, and whether it’s associated with another condition or not, insomnia has real effects on the health of our brain.

    First, insomnia influences parts of the brain involved with working memory. One study showed that primary insomniacs show different patterns of brain activity while performing simple memory tests. The first was that regions of the brain associated with working memory weren’t activated as much. The second was that regions of the brain which comprise the ‘default mode’, which are associated with a non-focused position, didn’t quiet down as they should have.

    We know from personal experience that lack of sleep can worsen cognitive functions like working memory. Whether it’s adding two numbers wrong, forgetting our keys somewhere, or calling someone by the wrong name, we’re all familiar with the way that poor sleep can impair our cognitive skills.

    Second, insomnia changes the actual structure of the brain. One study showed that poor self-ranked sleep quality among veterans was linked to decreased volumes of gray matter, especially in the frontal lobe. This region of the brain is involved in executive function, which suggests that chronic insomnia can result in impaired thinking and emotional regulation.

    How to avoid insomnia and keep your brain healthy

    Now that we’ve learned that sleep health is brain health, here are some ways we can avoid insomnia and have a better relationship with sleep:

    Commit to a wind-down period at the end of the day. Ideally, you wouldn’t be using screens during this time, and would be surrounding yourself with sleep-inducing things like low lighting and herbal tea.

    Only use the bed for sleep and intimacy. When we use our bed for daily tasks, whether it’s finishing homework or having a snack, we come to associate this haven for sleep with activity and not restfulness. By using it primarily for sleep, we condition ourselves to fall asleep faster.

    Incorporate exercise or stretching as an end-of-day activity. Physical activity is a great way to tire ourselves out and make us more likely to fall asleep. Time your activity so you have just enough time to wind-down.

    These examples of sleep hygiene will not only help you feel more refreshed, but keep your brain healthy.