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How many hours did you sleep last night? Most people believe that eight hours is the magic number but current scientific data say that is a myth. The National Sleep Foundation’s annual survey reports that the majority of adults sleeps seven hours a night and feel rested. This should come as a big relief for many people who can’t seem to squeeze in that last hour. Seven hours is the ideal number that most of us get naturally.

Many people in the working world end up with less than seven hours a night which means that they may be sleep deprived a good part of the time. Some of our clients wear it as a badge of courage, boasting to co-workers that they were up until 2 a.m. catching up on work email.

Most of us do not fully realize the impact sleep has on our brain. Productivity is affected when we have too little sleep because it is harder to think and make full use of the brain’s cognitive skills. Common reasons for poor sleep are physical pain and medical conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Sleep Impairment Can Cause Many Mental and Physical Problems

Focus: While we all lose focus from time to time, people with sufficient sleep get their focus back quickly. Not so for those who are sleep-deprived. They find it much harder to refocus although don’t necessarily realize that their performance has suffered.

Mistakes: It is much easier to make mistakes without enough sleep the night before. Research shows that people reduce their response time by 50% and that they have a lower accuracy rate for simple tasks than someone who is inebriated.

On-the-Job-Burnout : With fewer than six hours of sleep a night productivity loss is huge (and expensive). This is a serious issue confronting employers and costs companies billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.

Decision Making: Making on-the-spot ones, is also affected. Without enough sleep, the brain finds this a very difficult task.

Physical Difficulties: It is not only productivity that suffers but medical conditions such as heart and kidney diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity and degenerative brain disorders. Common reasons for restless sleep are physical pain and medical conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Did You Know that Your Brain Stays Active Day and Night?

Even though we assume that our brain shuts down at night, it is actually very active. Who would have guessed that so much occurs while we are sleeping  …

1)      Our body cells are reenergized and repaired which is why we wake up feeling refreshed. Even our mood is better and on more of an even keel throughout the day because we have more control over our emotions.

2)       At night our brain moves information that we take in during the day from short-term memory (temporary storage) to long-term memory, the brain’s more permanent storage. While we sleep this new learning is organized and codified. So, with a solid night’s sleep, the brain is likely to remember more.

3)       New research from the University of Rochester Medical Center using state-of-the-art technology discovered that a cleaning system exists within the brain to help remove protein buildup at night. When people sleep their brain cells shrink which allows fluids to move around easily and take away the detritus before it builds up. If they stay in the brain the brain does not function as well. The presence of toxic proteins in the brain may contribute to the aging process, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. Common reasons for restless sleep are physical pain and medical conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.

What’s Neuroscience Got To Do With It?

While there are still many unanswered questions, our urge to sleep or stay awake depends on how well a few small areas of the brain function near the brain stem (the reptilian brain). Neuroscientists have determined the location of these areas. When a person is most alert, the brain inhibits areas of the brain responsible for promoting sleep. And when the brain wants to inhibit wakefulness, the sleep-promoting areas of the brain become active.

Neuroscientists have been gaining new insight into sleep and its effect on memory. In a 2014 study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience researchers showed that memory skills suffer if a person is sleep deprived. “Sleep is essential to memory and brain function, but we are only beginning to understand the complex neurological mechanisms that are involved,” said Ravi Allada, MD, of Northwestern University, an expert on the neurobiology of sleep. “These latest discoveries are helping us to identify those mechanisms and to create new approaches to preserving and enhancing memory.”

Understanding the brain’s role while we sleep is complex and not yet readily understood. Instead of the brain just switching off, it goes to sleep in stages. Two groups of cells located in the hypothalamus and the brain stem move us into the SWS, slow-wave sleep. It is in this deep sleep when large, slow brain waves, relaxed muscles and slow, deep breathing help the brain start recuperating from the day. This is followed by rapid eye movement (REM sleep) when the muscles do not move and breathing and heart rate become erratic. During this time a person can dream vividly. The high level of brain waves is similar to brain activity when a person is awake. A small group of cells in the brain controls REM sleep.

What can you do to fall asleep faster? Look for the answers in the next sleep blog.


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