The Importance of Good Quality Sleep for Brain Health

Are you interested in improving sleep and brain health in Chicago? In this hectic modern world with a never ending supply of mind-jarring stimuli from work and entertainment, sleep has become almost an afterthought. Most of us have probably experienced crankiness and brain fog when deprived of restful sleep after pulling an all-nighter for work, or binge watching a tv show, or simply having consumed too much caffeine. The rise of entertainment media along with our increasingly complex lifestyles has created a pandemic of insomnia, confused body-clocks, and a myriad of other sleeping disorders that cause our brains to function less efficiently at best, and create severe physiological or psychological problems at worst. Which is why the awareness of the benefits of sleep has never been more important.

So why is sleep so important, and what exactly does it do to our brain? What does science have to say about the connection between brain health and sleep? What are the long term negative consequences of habitual sleep deprivation? And more importantly, what can we do to sleep better? To find the answers and hopefully encourage you to develop better sleeping habits, we have consulted leading Functional Neurology experts over at Spring Grove Physical Medicine to find out the benefits of good quality sleep for brain and neurological health.


Why is brain health important?

The human brain is a powerful and crucial organ that gives us the ability to communicate, create, make decisions, solve problems and to simply be aware of our daily existence. A triumph of evolution, this fascinating and complex organ is the nexus that controls the nervous system, allowing for our capacity to have thoughts and emotions, memories and motion. It should therefore be treated with utmost care from the day we are born and throughout our entire lifetime, as many of the diseases and conditions associated with brain health affect the overall quality of our lives. Vascular diseases, degenerative diseases, brain tissue injuries, inflammation, malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, immune-mediated diseases and mental health disorders, among many other conditions can be traced to poor brain health. While there is no one defining metric for brain health, a healthy brain is typically characterized with the successful preservation of the brain’s physical integrity in relation to age, the presence of good mental and cognitive functions, as well as the absence of overt neurological conditions. Aging is one of the main factors that contributes to brain degeneration, which is why it becomes more important to develop habits that keep our brain healthy as time goes on. Which brings us to the all important role of good quality sleep in brain health.


Why is sleep important for the brain?

Sleep is a dynamic and complex process that affects every single part of the body and all of its systems – the brain, heart, circulation, lungs, nervous system, immune system, and even our mood. Scientists are only now beginning to understand the myriad reasons why we all need sleep and its biological purpose still remains a mystery. But we know for a fact that chronic lack of good sleep increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, neurological disorders, anxiety, and depression among many other conditions.

Sleep is crucial to many of our brain functions, including how neurons (nerve cells) function. During our waking hours, the space surrounding our brain cells (known as interstitial space) experiences a build up of toxic proteins known as beta amyloids. Beta amyloids are highly dangerous in large quantities, and have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such Alzheimer’s. Too much of this toxic protein in the interstitial space can damage our highly sensitive brain cells and impair our nerve functions. It is therefore essential to flush out such toxic waste products from the interstitial space regularly and effectively. The brain unfortunately does not have a lymphatic system that cleans out waste products, as typically seen in most other organs of the body, and the only way to clean it out is through sleeping. 

Good quality sleep has a restorative effect wherein the brain switches into a state that facilitates the removal of these waste products that have built up during the day. The interstitial space expands during sleep, allowing the brain’s natural functions to flush out the beta amyloids. Sleeping literally clears our mind of toxic elements. 


Other benefits of getting enough sleep

  • Boost your immune system
  • Control unwanted weight changes
  • Strengthen your cardiovascular system
  • Improve your mood
  • Increase productivity
  • Improve athletic performance
  • Improve cognitive functions such as memory and concentration


When is the best time to sleep?

Our circadian rhythm, or our natural body clock, is highly adapted to the daily patterns of the sun. Humans are ideally suited to waking up in the early morning hours, and sleeping soon after sundown. Many biological factors govern this natural behavior, which is why it is slightly different for each individual in determining when it is best to sleep and wake up. 

Our sleep patterns also change as we age, and the length of sleep varies drastically among same-aged individuals, so there is no standard metric for amount of sleep.  Babies can sleep as much as 16 to 18 hours a day, as needed for their physical growth and brain development.  Children aged 4-12 as well as young teens on average need about 9-10 hours of good quality sleep every night in order to fully take advantage of their formative years. A healthy brain is essential to students as it affects their ability to concentrate, absorb information, learn new skills, solve problems and perform tasks necessary in academic life. Adults, in general, need only 7-9 hours of sleep a night in order to function properly through work. Elderly people aged 60 and above need even less nighttime sleep, and tend to experience shorter and lighter sleep, coupled with multiple awakenings.

There is also the false notion that you can somehow “catch-up” on sleep during the weekend after being sleep deprived for days. This is simply not true. Our brains need deep, restful sleep regularly and at the correct timing in order to fully detox and regenerate. Undersleeping during the week and oversleeping during the weekend will actually cause more harm to your general well being if done over long periods of time, as this will only serve to disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm while giving you the illusion that all is fine.


How can we sleep better?

  • Sleep on a regular schedule. Figure out the right time to sleep and wake up in accordance to your needs. Having a regular sleep and waking schedule will greatly aid in the programming of your body clock and help you sleep faster and deeper. Make this consistent even during weekends or off days.
  • Be consistent with your diet. Don’t go to bed hungry or full. Avoid having large meals before bed, as well as consuming stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or high levels of sugar. Substances like alcohol or certain drugs might make you feel sleepy, but it lessens the quality of your sleep overall. 
  • Create an environment that is ideal for sleeping. A cool, dark and quiet room makes for excellent sleeping conditions. Avoid bright lights or light emitting devices before going to bed, as these only stimulate your brain and interfere with your body clock’s ability to differentiate night and day. Turn off the lights and do relaxing things, like breathing exercises or meditation.
  • Avoid long naps during the day as these can interfere with your regular sleep. Napping for 30 minutes or less during the early part of the day is okay, but indulging in prolonged sleep especially nearing bedtime can potentially mess up your body clock. Adjust accordingly if you work nights.
  • Regular exercise and spending time outdoors during the day engages the body and burns excess energy. This will make sleeping much easier and deeper when nightime comes.
  • Managing stress goes a long way in overall sleep and brain health. Make sure things are in order before going to bed. It is normal to have bouts of sleepless nights every now and then, but if you can help it, get organized and set priorities during the day so you aren’t thinking about it in bed. Anxious thoughts lead to bad quality of sleep. 


A note on stress management and the benefits of Functional Wellness

Managing anxiety and worries is far more complex than eating healthy and exercising or taking a round of pills and attending treatment. Sometimes, there is no straight answer to mitigating stress. A lot of it has to do with intersecting life factors that cause mental and emotional distress, which ultimately leads to sleepless nights, causing this cycle of stress and bad quality sleep. Which is why functional wellness can benefit those who have trouble in this aspect. Functional wellness is a holistic approach to medicine wherein treatment is geared towards both managing symptoms and (more importantly) getting to the root of the condition, whether it be physical, psychological, or from habitual conditioning. Functional wellness seeks to address not only the disease itself, but the conditions which allow the disease to flourish in the first place. It takes into account the interconnected nature of the human system, and focuses on creating a proper balance in the mind and body, rather than simply targeting individual areas. In this way, Functional Wellness not only aims to cure disease, but also to promote a healthier lifestyle overall and prevent further recurrences in the long run. 

For more information on Functional Wellness and how it can help you, visit