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Studying the Inside of the Eyelids: A Lifelong Habit

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Hard to believe summer has flown by and we’re already thinking about the annual ritual of preparing for the school year—from new clothes to new learning. One of the most important factors for anyone who wants to have the best possible brain function is to get enough sleep.

Sleep must be scheduled with way more priority than any soccer practice or study group (talking school-age kids) and way more than catching up on email or your fave Netflix series (yoo-hoo, adults.) When you lose sleep you sacrifice memory and cognitive performance, not to mention the rest of your body suffers as well.

Catching good shut-eye is right up there with eating and exercise and stress management: handle those four areas and you’re almost certainly going to enjoy good health.

Two main issues with getting enough sleep are first: how much sleep do you need, and second: how do you overcome any obstacles to sleep.

How much sleep you need is age-dependent: infants should be sleeping more than half the day at night plus naps. Your babies should be sleeping as much as your cats do! Toddlers and pre-schoolers need somewhere between 10-14 hours. School-age kids need much more sleep than they’re getting! Starting school, a child may do fine on 11 or more hours of sleep, that’s not the problematic end. All the way through high school, kids still need 9 hours minimum. “I have to __________!” may sound like a really good reason to stay up late, but taking the long view, there’s never a good reason short of a true 911-type emergency to short-change your sleep hours.

And adults: you may do well with 7 hours (8-9 hours are usually better!) but settling for anything less than 7 is likely shortchanging your brain power. Old people don’t “need less sleep,” though they often settle for less sleep. Never a good idea.
During sleep brains do their housecleaning (“don’t need that list anymore”) and filing (“I’d better keep those European capital cities in my brain.”) Without adequate sleep, brain priorities are confused and real learning is impaired. Second graders need to learn and seventy-year olds certainly don’t want to forget facts they need: we all need to have functioning short-term memories to thrive. And our short-term memory becomes expendable if the brain has to cut corners: not good at either end of the age spectrum.

For some lucky folks, scheduling 8 hours of sleep is a magic charm: the good sleepers among us can skip the rest of this column. For many folks, however, the decision is the small part, the accomplishment may be challenging. We’d need the whole paper to cover all the possible strategies, but it’s good to start with:

  • Finish eating, exercising, and drinking alcohol at least 3-4 hours before bed,
  • Dim lights and restful, screen-free time for 1-2 hours before bed,
  • Schedule consistent bed and rising times. If you stay up late, try to keep the rising-time within 30-60 minutes of the schedule rather than sleeping late,
  • Yes, it’s a fact of physiology that many teens do better with a sleep-advanced schedule and a late school start time: seize the opportunity if you have it and need it!, and finally…
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and free of electronic gizmos and wi-fi connections. (Even if you get a signal in your bedroom, you’ll sleep better if your phone is on airplane mode or at least 12 feet from your bed.)

Beyond the basics, there are many supplements and specific solutions that may be effective for a given individual. Best to choose supplements that fit in with your own physiology (say, vitamin D or tryptophan), and to avoid sleep aids that are purely pharmaceutical (anti-histamines and sleeping pills) as regular use of sleep meds is associated with impaired brain function on a par with lost sleep!

So for your annual celebration of either back-to-school or your lifelong love of having a happy and healthy brain, it’s up to you: how much night-time sleep will you be getting this fall?

Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.


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