Modern life is hectic. With the constant demands on us—busy schedules, and outside (or inside) pressure to do more, achieve more, and push ourselves harder—it’s unsurprising that more and more of us find it difficult to switch off. And yet, sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our energy, productivity, and well-being. But the act of losing seven to nine hours of our days to lay down and rest can seem like too big of an ask.
I’m here to change your mind about that. Trust me, I understand the pressure! I used to prioritize my work over my life and ended up being thoroughly burned out, neglecting my most basic needs like rest and mindfulness.
As those things began to suffer, everything else began to suffer, too. My mood, my work, and my ability to focus all diminished because I simply wasn’t taking enough care of myself and my brain. I knew it was time to change and start putting my brain first. Never again would I neglect my self-care.
The Building Blocks of Brain Health
In my roles as a neuroscientist, coach, professor, former psychiatrist, as well as my work as an author, speaker, and executive advisor, the same thing comes up over and over again. If you don’t give your brain the basic tools it needs, doing anything else becomes exceedingly difficult.
If I was to say there was a side-effect-free way of boosting your productivity by 50%, improve your mood to the extent that it matches the impact of an antidepressant for treatment of mild to moderate depression, and create the optimal conditions for your brain to thrive, you’d want to know what that drug was called.
It’s really very simple: braincare.
Our brain impacts our energy, sleep, focus, immune system, and so much more. You might think that braincare is something you can put off until later in your life. But increasing evidence shows that cognitive decline begins in our 30s and 40s and that the signs of Alzheimer’s are often visible 25 years before symptoms appear.
So really, the sooner you can start prioritizing your braincare, the better.
My top list of priorities essential for optimum brain function are:
You’ll notice that rest is at the top of that list, but you need all of them to work together to function at your best. For now, though, let’s focus on sleep.
Why Is Sleep Important?
During the night, you might feel as though you’re doing nothing. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on. There’s a system called the glymphatic system that, while you’re sleeping, cleans the cerebrospinal fluid. This helps to remove neurotoxins like the amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain that can lead to diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
Poor sleep can also result in fatigue and make it more difficult to manage one’s emotions. We’ve all caught ourselves getting snappy with our colleagues and loved ones after less than optimum sleep.
The quality and quantity of our sleep also affect immunity. It does this through the regulation of immunological markers and their cells, having a direct influence on immunity maintenance and immunological response. Circadian rhythm alterations, associated with stress, for example, can compromise the quality of sleep and, by proxy, the immune system.
Sleep is also the time when the things we’ve learned or experienced through the day are committed to memory—visual and emotional things during REM sleep and more wordy things, such as lists of facts, during slow-wave sleep.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
We all need seven to nine hours of deep sleep every day. This is a nightly requirement for 98% of human brains. All those politicians and entrepreneurs boasting about only needing a couple of hours a night? Well, they’re just making the rest of us feel bad, and they are not doing their brains and mental well-being any favors either.
In all likelihood, you’re not in that 1 to 2%. So, it’s time to let that idea go and admit to yourself that you do feel better when you’ve had enough sleep.
Getting enough sleep protects our mental and physical health, as well as our quality of life and safety. In fact, studies reveal that even partial sleep deprivation can have huge impacts on a wide range of cognitive functions, how alert we feel, and our mood even in high-performing people. It’s a practice that is hardwired into our DNA. Our circadian rhythm works with our body’s natural cycles of rest and wakefulness, and sleep provides a vital time for many essential processes to take place.
Having Good Sleep Hygiene
So, I hope it’s now a bit clearer on just how important sleep is. It’s vital for your mood, your day-to-day brain function, your immune system, and to protect you from cognitive decline in the future—and getting enough needs to be a top priority.
This is where naps can be really useful. I know that children, pets, needing the loo, snoring partners, and all sorts of factors can disturb your sleep through the night. So, a well-deserved power nap can be a great way to top up.
I’ll go into the best kinds of naps later on. First, though, let’s talk about how to make sure you’re getting the best quality sleep. Your daily routines, especially before bedtime, can significantly impact your sleep. They can either promote healthy sleep or contribute to sleeplessness.
Tips for a Healthy Sleep Routine
If you have difficulty sleeping or want to improve your sleep either through the night or with power naps, try following these healthy sleeping habits.
When you wake up from sleep or a power nap:
Use a clock, not a phone as your alarm.
Don’t snooze (even though I know it’s so tempting!).
Drink some water straight away to rehydrate.
Open the curtains to let some natural light in.
Have a stretch.
Before going to sleep or having a power nap:
Make sure your diet includes these essential nutrients for better sleep.
Do some calming yoga.
Take a few minutes to reflect and journal.
Create the Right Environment for Sleep and Naps
Creating the right environment is also important if you want to develop good sleep hygiene. Here are some things you can do:
Use earplugs and a sleep mask.
Maintain a cool, stable temperature.
Turn off phone notifications.
Create a peaceful, calm space.
Also, be sure to keep a consistent sleep schedule and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations. Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep, too.
It is worth noting that if you have a persistent sleep problem such as insomnia, there may be some other underlying issues, so please speak to your doctor.
The Benefits of Power Naps
As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang so eloquently puts it in his book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,
“If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.”
Power naps—or any naps really—are simply small, sometimes quite strategic sleeps taken as and when we feel we want them. In my experience, people fall into two camps: those who regularly nap, and those who never nap.
Benefits of power naps include improvements in cognitive function, alertness, and productivity. Naps are also widely believed to increase creativity, and some of the biggest companies in the world, such as Google and Uber, have dedicated nap spaces in their offices for this exact reason.
Several studies have also shown that naps improve performance in areas such as reaction time, logical reasoning, and symbol recognition, help with emotion regulation, and tolerance to frustration, and support your ability to learn and retain information.
How Long Is a Power Nap?
There are a few different length naps you could try depending on what you need (and how much time you have).
I like to think of them like this:
20-minute nap = a power boost
30-minute nap = improves learning and memory
60-minute nap = improves learning memory, helps form new connections in the brain, and helps creativity
So, if napping isn’t something you would normally do, you might want to consider swapping your afternoon pick-me-up with a nap instead to improve your energy and performance during the afternoon.
Make a Sleep Routine
I can’t emphasise enough how important sleep is for your health, well-being, and focus. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t get a good sleep or even a nap without going through some kind of routine to prepare myself for sleep.
Of course, everyone’s routine will be different. But here are some things that you might want to consider.
Setting out your clothes for the following day
Showering or having a magnesium bath
Reviewing your day and setting goals
Using a relaxing pillow spray
Each step of your routine should help you to feel a sense of achievement and allow you to feel prepared and ready for sleep. Creating a routine could help you be more proactive when you wake up and achieve more in the day ahead.
More About Power Nap
Featured photo credit: Adrian Swancar via unsplash.com
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