April 20, 2020
The Manual
Clay Abney

Raise your hand if you’re guilty of any of the following excuses regarding lack of sleep on any given night:

  • There are not enough hours in the day to get everything done.
  • I got caught up binge-watching a show on Netflix.
  • Monday Night Football game that goes into overtime (not these days, of course).
  • Traveling down a social media rabbit hole.
  • Crashing for a test or presentation.

I’m sure that we’ve all used at least one of these and you likely have something else you could add to the list. 

Let’s face it, we know that we need to eat better and work out more, but how often do we neglect the need for sleep? Quality sleep is just as critical as nutrition and fitness.

But don’t just take it from us. We found someone that studies the brain and truly understands how sleep (or the lack thereof) can affect our overall health. Dr. Henry W. Mahncke, Ph.D. is a research neuroscientist. He serves as the CEO of Posit Science Corporation (the developers of the cognitive training program, BrainHQ), acts as the principal investigator on multiple government grants, and has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles.

We asked Dr. Mahncke to share his thoughts on common sleep issues, the benefits of sleep, and most importantly, tips for achieving quality slumber.

The Manual: What are the main sleep issues people deal with?

Dr. Henry W. Mahncke: We can broadly divide sleep issues into two categories. Some people suffer severe, clinically significant issues with sleep — issues like chronic insomnia (to the point where it disrupts our work or family relationships), narcolepsy (spontaneously falling asleep), or sleep apnea (where breathing stops and starts during sleep). These kinds of disorders require proper medical evaluation and treatment. 

But many of us suffer from low-quality sleep or not enough sleep, which can really have a negative impact on our overall quality of life. And for many of us, this happens because we don’t treat sleep as seriously as we do other wellness habits, like exercise, eating right, and cognitive stimulation. We (wrongly) think of sleep as wasted time — when we’re not awake and can’t get anything done. We should take sleep seriously — and just like we might have a workout routine, a nutritional approach, and a cognitive training program — we should also have a thoughtful approach to how we sleep to ensure our overall energy, physical and cognitive health, and quality of life.

The Manual: Why is sleep essential to overall health?

HM: While you’re not awake, significant parts of your brain are very busy, doing incredibly important actions for your brain health.

  • Learning: Your brain literally rewires itself while you are sleeping, consolidating the learning you’ve done during the day. Scientists studying rats trained to learn mazes see that while sleeping, brain circuits repetitively and rapidly reactivate themselves — exactly as if the rat were running the maze in its sleep. Scientists studying humans learning new tasks have shown that a person improves at the task during the time after they finish on one day and before they start the next day, but only if they get good sleep. So if you ever have to learn something new in your work or in a hobby — and that’s just about all of us — then you should invest in a good night’s sleep.
  • Cleaning: Your brain cleans itself while you are sleeping. Waves of cerebrospinal fluid wash back and forth, cleaning accumulating waste products out of the brain. So unless you want your brain to resemble a frat house after a college party, get a full night’s sleep.
  • Cognition: Low sleep is correlated with poor cognitive function, like processing speed, attention, and memory, and is associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. While good sleep hasn’t yet been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s, it’s a pretty sensible way to invest in brain health.

TM: Do we all really need eight hours each night?

HM: Some people need nine! Everyone’s sleep needs differ, but there really aren’t people who can sustainably get by on five or six hours night after night and be at their best. You’ll figure out your own sleep needs by establishing a regular bedtime on the early side, and starting to see what time you wake up in the morning. There’s a terrible culture in our society of celebrating people who say they only need four hours of sleep a day — and then implying that people who sleep a normal amount are lazy and don’t deserve success. From a brain health perspective, this is simply nonsense. It’s as silly as saying, “Do people really need 1,800 calories a day?” Well, different people are different, but yes, if you plan on living a long, healthy life.

TM: What are some tips for enhancing our sleep?

HM: The key to better sleep is treating sleep like any other serious wellness activity.

  • First of all, establish a habit. Just like you might have a regular time you go to the gym, which helps you do it, even on a day you’re not in the mood, you should have a regular bedtime. Part of that routine is what you do before you go to sleep.  For some people, it’s reading a book or a magazine for 20 minutes, and for others, it’s taking a bath or a shower. Whatever it is, the regularity of it helps train your brain and your body into the habit of falling asleep.
  • You should avoid stressful activities. Don’t work from home answering emails in bed until you pass out from exhaustion, or rehash the troubles of the day in your mind or with your partner. There is evidence that the blue light from electronic screens can cause sleep problems. And even with recent innovations that lower blue light from mobile phones, it’s still likely better to develop a sleep routine that avoids electronics, because scrolling through news on Twitter or updates from Facebook doesn’t meet the definition of relaxing.
  • Make sure you get some exercise and try to avoid naps during the day so you’re actually tired at bedtime.
  • And finally, keep your room slightly on the cool slide, somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.