How Quality Sleep Works as the Brain’s Nightly Recharge

Are you sleeping at least seven hours every night?  The experts insist that you should, but over a third of Americans aren’t sleeping enough.1  Sleep deprivation increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and mental health problems, including depression.  In addition, researchers are now uncovering the impact of diet and behavior on sleep patterns, and there are strong links between poor sleep and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.2  Given the powerful role of sleep for our long-term and day-to-day health, it’s crucial to understand how sleep heals and repairs the brain, and how your own sleep habits might be affecting your health. 

Sleep and the Brain: The Latest Science 

Sleep is critical for the proper functioning of your brain and body.  After a busy day, your body’s cells are short on energy, and sleep is a time to replenish their stocks.  When you’re sick, you’ll notice that your body demands more rest so it can heal injuries or repair damage.  In fact, everyone benefits from the complex self-repair systems that activate when we’re asleep.  We sometimes imagine that the brain is quiet during the night, but it’s busy encoding learned information, organizing memories, clearing out unnecessary neuronal connections, and increasing its own efficiency.3  

Research is showing that it’s not only the amount of sleep that counts – seven or eight hours is recommended – but also the quality of sleep.  The best sleep is characterized by falling asleep quickly (within thirty minutes of laying down), and then staying asleep throughout the whole night so that you experience 7-9 hours of continuous rest.  

If your sleep is broken up or ‘fragmented’, you won’t receive the full benefit of the repair processes.  A crucial example is ‘autophagy’, the automated clearance of waste products from your cells.4  This process requires extended sleep, and when it is absent or fragmented, the results for brain health can be very harmful.  In tests, animals have simply died after ten days of chronic sleep deprivation, highlighting how vital sleep is.  In humans, poor sleep is linked to measurable neuron loss, oxidative stress, and a dangerous build-up of amyloid-beta, a protein that makes-up toxic plaque deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.5  Poor-quality sleep also impacts general cognitive performance - our ability to think clearly, quickly, and make good decisions - and can lead to mood swings and hallucination.6  In contrast, high-quality sleep helps to strengthen neural connections and makes synapses more ‘plastic’, so they communicate more efficiently.7 

Understanding the Stages of Sleep 

To understand the benefits of sleep and the dangers of fragmentation, let’s look at the stages of sleep.  If you went to bed at 10:45pm, a typical night of beneficial, restful sleep would closely resemble this pattern: 

stages of sleep

Falling asleep quickly and remaining asleep for long periods is the best way to ensure that you complete several of these 90-minute (or so) cycles.  And achieving several cycles in a row is how to provide the greatest chance for your brain and body to heal and repair.  Between seven and nine hours of continuous sleep grants five or six of these cycles.  And remember:  the latest of these cycles are the most valuable.  

Do You Have a Sleep Disorder? 

While many of us claim to suffer from insomnia, the medical definition is quite strict.  Genuine chronic insomniacs have experienced sleep problems for at least one month, are not using substances which harm their sleep, aren’t dealing with other ailments which have sleep impacts, and can directly connect sleeplessness with negative effects on their lives.  If you only sleep five hours a night but are cognitively functional and fully enjoy each new day, your doctor would not (and should not) diagnose insomnia.8  

Restless Leg Syndrome is a genuine sleep (and movement) disorder characterized by a compelling need to regularly move the legs in hopes of relieving mounting discomfort.  There is no cure, but researchers recommend testing for iron deficiency, and staying away from alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.9  Those who suffer from sleep apnea often snore or gasp in their sleep owing to airway obstructions.  The best treatment seems to be losing weight and using a CPAP machine.10  Any disturbance in your sleep, whether from uncomfortable legs or waking yourself up by snoring, disrupts the all-important 90-minute sleep cycles that your brain depends on for its health and overnight repair tasks.  

Women are particularly badly affected by sleep disorders and are 41% more likely than men to experience insomnia.  Hormonal changes, both during pregnancy and especially during menopause, seem to contribute to uneven, disturbed, and less restful sleep.11 

To Nap or Not to Nap? 

Generally speaking, the answer is ‘not to nap’.  Sleep doesn’t benefit from a ‘more is better’ approach, owing to the progression of sleep stages we discussed a moment ago.  Plus, the science on napping has so far resulted in concerning findings.  Regular naps are associated with depressive symptoms and weight gain, and there are strong connections between napping and Alzheimer’s Disease – whether they are cause or effect is under investigation.12,13

What about Medications? 

There are serious concerns about the safety of popular sleep medications, such as Ambien and Lunesta.14,15  This centers around the chemical ‘hangover’ often experienced by users of these medications, as well as the potential for mood disorders and the looming threat of addiction and withdrawal.  Research also shows a link with dementia (again, whether cause or effect) , so anyone considering using a sleep medication should inform themselves fully and consider other methods of addressing their sleep issues.16 

How about Melatonin? 

This naturally occurring hormone governs your circadian rhythm and is a main reason why your body feels the need to sleep when it’s dark.17  It’s also available as a supplement, the use of which has increased by about five times in the last 25 years.18  It has known positive effects, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and can be helpful in the short-term as a sleep aid for shift workers and those traveling between time zones.19  However, the long-term effects of using melatonin supplements are not well understood, and it should not be seen as a durable solution to insomnia as it can mask other ongoing sleep issues.  There are also concerns that melatonin can worsen Restless Leg Syndrome, and bring about daytime drowsiness, particularly among dementia sufferers, as their bodies metabolize melatonin more slowly.20  

Improving Your Quality of Sleep 

Happily, there are some simple tactics which are shown to help you achieve the most beneficial duration and quality of sleep – perhaps staving-off sleep disorders and the need for medications.  In your own mind, try to frame the act of going to sleep as a skill or a practice, something you can get better at over time. Here are some tried-and-tested methods: 

  • Choose and maintain a regular sleep schedule, so that you’re heading to bed at the same time, each night. 
  • Avoid caffeine (and other stimulants) and alcohol (which disturbs sleep patterns) especially before bed.  
  • Choose a time each evening after which you won’t drink any more water (to reduce bladder pressure in the small hours) 
  • Avoid exercising, snacking, bright lights or device screens in the hour or so before bedtime. 
  • Try relaxing activities like taking a bath or reading before bedtime. 
  • Carefully consider ‘sleep hygiene’, i.e., the environment in which you sleep.  Make sure it’s quiet, cool, dark, and comfortable. Investing in a new mattress, a higher-quality sheets and pillows, or a light-eliminating eye mask (or sleep mask) may help. 

The Power of Nutrition for Restful Sleep 

Another crucial area which isn’t discussed enough is the impact of nutrition on sleep quality.  Scientists have found that high-carbohydrate foods (white bread, sweetened yogurts, potato chips), and those high in saturated fats (cakes, cookies, bacon), can disturb sleep patterns.  Omega-3 oils (derived from fish or fish eggs) and certain amino acids (especially GABA, and I-theanine which is found in green tea) have been shown to benefit sleep.21,22  Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet has a close relationship with high-quality sleep which was found to be ‘bidirectional’.23  This exciting finding means that following a Mediterranean diet promotes sleep, and in turn, good-quality sleep reduces the impulse to snack or over-eat during the day.24

Given sleep’s connection with the Mediterranean diet and brain health, you may want to consider fortifying these helpful nutrients through high-quality nutritional supplementation for brain health, such as RELEVATE.  It contains 17 thoroughly researched nutrients to support long-term brain health, as well as sleep quality.  The dosages of RELEVATE’s ingredients are based on those consumed in brain-healthy, neuroprotective diets like the Mediterranean and MIND diets and are derived from long-term, large-scale medical studies of these brain-strengthening diets.  About 42% of RELEVATE users notice improvements in sleep and energy.25  

We all deserve a good night’s rest, and the powerful role that sleep plays in cognitive health and repairing our bodies is strongly supported by decades of research.  To boost the quality of sleep, consider your sleep habits and environment, use of substances and medications, screen time, and nutritional choices.  Also, brain nutritional support like RELEVATE offers a simple daily method to enhance your body’s ability to heal and repair itself during sleep, and to get the high-quality rest that you need. 


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  25. Survey conducted by NeuroReserve in March 2022. 
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