Every Night Counts: 5 Ways Quality Sleep is Critical for Your Brain Health

Black dog sleeping.
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I don’t know one person who hasn’t had to slog through a day after a crappy night’s sleep.

I’ve done it more times than I can count, especially when I was younger.

Ambition, drive, accomplishment, and success are the bedrock of many lives. In pursuing these ‘virtues,’ our rest is the first thing to go.

Nowadays, it’s a badge of honor to be overtired, overworked, and overextended. And the more tired and stressed out you are? The better of a citizen you are deemed to be.

I used to believe and buy into this mindset too, and it served me for many years. I did accomplish a lot, but at what cost to my body?

All those late nights spent either working, socializing, or pursuing something meant I had to keep going to stay afloat and ahead. I was often tired, dragged out, and relied on caffeine to keep me going during long days.

After reading the chapter on sleep in Dr. Sunjay Gupta’s book, Keep Sharp, my eyes were opened to how valuable and necessary good quality sleep really is. There are many tasks the brain performs when we sleep and each compounds to add up to the quality of the following day.

Sleep deprivation causes a slew of problems and imbalances that affect all parts of our body and outlook.

The notion of ‘catching up on sleep over the weekend’ is false. Even one night of poor quality sleep does damage. We cannot ‘catch up’ on sleep.

Let’s keep in mind that all systems in the body are connected. We cannot eat poorly and expect to feel good. And we can’t lose sleep night after night and expect to feel high-functioning. It won’t work.

Below, I share five ways quality sleep and rest support, maintain, and improve our overall health, decreasing our risk for developing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and poor brain function in later life.

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1. Quality sleep keeps our circadian rhythm in check.

Our sleep habits dictate our circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock responsible for our body secreting hormones and regulating body temperature.

What does hunger have to do with sleep? A lot, actually.

Did you know your hormone levels are deeply affected by your sleep patterns? The hormones responsible for telling us we’re hungry (ghrelin) and we’re full (leptin) become imbalanced with inadequate sleep. This throws off our appetite ‘schedule’ and can cause hunger at odd times (like right before you go to bed or in the middle of the night).

This, in turn, affects your weight, mood, and concentration, which compounds and spills over into every other system in the body, including how well your brain is functioning.

Even one night of poor sleep can put your circadian rhythm all out of whack, affecting hormone secretion at the proper times.

Our circadian rhythm is based on a solar day and resets roughly every 24 hours.

Ideally, people should rise and fall with the Sun. The invention of the lightbulb was the first culprit in changing people’s natural sleep rhythms since they could now work late into the night as well as attend evening and night events.

When I turned 40, I quickly noticed myself getting sleepier earlier in the evening and waking up earlier in the morning, but still feeling rested.

When we don’t get enough rest and our circadian rhythm gets altered, we usually reach for ‘quick fix’ energy like salty, sweet, and starchy foods.

These foods can cause inflammation and energy crashes, sending our brain into unnecessary stress cycles and adding to anxious feelings.

The next time you have a disrupted night of rest, remember that your hunger cues will be off and you might be more tempted to go for the sugar or processed carbs.

2. Quality sleep helps our overall memory.

We all believe we remember events exactly how they occurred, but this is not necessarily true.

We remember events and experiences based on what is relevant and urgent to us.

Research has shown that our memories change over time as we ingest new information. Shockingly, old memories can become warped by overlaying new information, especially if it is similar to the older memory or experience. Wow!

A big component that affects our memory is our sleep quality.

Think about the last time your sleep quality was poor. I would bet money you felt that inevitable ‘brain fog.’ The stuff you needed to remember or recall just wasn’t sticking or available to you.

There’s a reason for this.

During sleep, our brain moves our memories around! This is called ‘sleep spindles’ and it involves the brain moving information from our hippocampus to the ‘hard drive’ of our neocortex:

One of the most recent theories about memory and sleep suggests that sleep helps us triage important memories to ensure we encode the most significant events in our brains. Sleep is essential for consolidating our memories and filing them away for later recall. Research is showing that brief bursts of brain activity during deep sleep, called sleep spindles, effectively move recent memories, including what we learned that day, from the short-term space of the hippocampus to the ‘hard drive’ of our neocortex. Sleep, in other words, cleans up the hippocampus so it can take in new information that it then processes.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp

Wow! No wonder we feel spacey and messy in our minds when our sleep is disrupted or poor quality. Our brain hasn’t been fully cleaned up from the previous day!

Without good sleep, this organization of our memories cannot occur. And without good sleep, just processing incoming information becomes a challenge because you have too much debris from the day before. Your interpreting equipment is not at full capacity.

And that’s not all. People with chronic sleep problems and fragmented sleep are more prone to developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

3. Quality sleep ‘washes’ our brain.

The brain has its own self-cleaning mechanism called the glymphatic system.

When we sleep, this system goes into overdrive, giving our brain a good cleansing of cellular debris and toxic waste.

But when we lose sleep, this function can’t complete and causes inflammation in the brain. This, in turn, allows beta-amyloid to accumulate, which is the protein associated with developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The glymphatic system gives our brain a good scrub and essentially ‘takes out the trash’ so it can keep functioning properly.

When we don’t get enough sleep, this ‘rinse cycle’ can’t occur, leading to more build-up of beta-amyloid plaque.

Chronic poor sleep is like allowing trash to accumulate in your kitchen garbage for weeks on end without any plan to take it out.

4. Quality sleep is medicine.

When one system in the body becomes imbalanced, it doesn’t take long for it to affect every other system and function.

Sleep is medicine because it heals and replenishes. It’s like a reset for all our autonomic functions which rely on the brain being responsive, rested, and cleansed of old information.

Just think about it: when we lose sleep it throws off our circadian rhythm, which affects our hormone secretions, including those for eating and resting.

When we start to eat poorly or go for ‘quick fix’ energy in the form of sugar and processed carbs, we risk weight gain and inflammation. This changes our mood, outlook, and ability to concentrate.

Weight gain can start to affect the heart, leading to poor circulation and less blood flow to the smaller blood vessels in the brain.

Lastly, when we try to fall asleep with an imbalanced circadian rhythm, we may experience restlessness, light sleep, poor sleep, or disrupted sleep, allowing the cycle to start all over again.

Quality sleep aids in all aspects of our health and is needed by every system to perform well. There is no benefit to losing sleep or pushing through when you are exhausted.

Going forward, start to make sleep your main priority and treat it as sacred – because it is.

5. Quality rest leads to quality sleep.

Do you give yourself breaks and rest throughout the day?

If not, I suggest you schedule some in because rest is just as beneficial as sleep.

But most of us don’t get enough of it in our waking hours.

Our brain takes in an incredible amount of stimuli as we go through the day. All of this has to be processed through the ‘croc brain’ or lizard brain, which filters through information and decides what is relevant and urgent to you.

All of this processing takes tons of physical energy, which is why so many of us fall back on unhealthy habits. Habits allow the brain to use less energy so it can keep you alive.

Rest strengthens our mental health and gives us a chance to clear our energy and come back to ourselves. This is especially true if we share a living space with other people.

Giving our brain these mini-breaks helps restore it to the responsive setting, or the ‘rest and digest’ setting. This means we will be more in tune with our higher brain functions like emotional connectivity, creative thinking, and problem-solving, and processing highly detailed information, like a huge financial spreadsheet.

Breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm the brain down and return to a sense of peace and control. If you have not read Breath by James Nestor, I highly recommend it. Breathing is considered to be an automatic function, but it is so much more than that.

Make a point to rest throughout the day. You’ll feel better and be more focused and alert for the stuff you want to accomplish.

Rest can take many forms and should instill a feeling of peace:

  • closing your eyes and doing some steady breathing
  • meditating
  • practicing yoga or gentle stretching
  • sitting with your pet and connecting with them
  • smelling something pleasant and focusing on your senses
  • taking a walk or sitting in nature
  • listening to soothing music

As the day winds down, start to slow down so you prepare your body and mind for a restful night’s sleep.

How to Get the Best Sleep According to Your Ayurvedic Constitution

Herbs in a pestle and mortar.
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I’m so grateful to have my friend and Ayurvedic practitioner, Keri Mangis, give us some information and suggestions for a great night of sleep. What follows is her advice and wisdom from the Ayurvedic teachings and practices. Thank you, Keri!

Much of the advice available on sleep takes a one-size-fits-all approach. However, Ayurveda understands that everyone’s sleep needs are, and in fact, should be, individual, as per their unique constitution. Before we get into the details, let’s start with an overview. 

Know Who You Are

In Ayurveda, a person’s constitution is called their dosha. Our dosha indicates the prominent characteristics that make up our mind and body. These characteristics flow from various combinations of the Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabhuta). 

(While the best way to determine your dosha is via an assessment with an Ayurvedic practitioner, you can get a general direction by taking this simple quiz.)

Below are the three primary doshas:

  • Vata (Air/Ether) =  light, cold, and dry
  • Pitta (Fire) = light, hot, and dry
  • Kapha (Water/Earth) = heavy, cool, and damp

Vata Dosha and Sleep

People with Vata dosha move all day long like the wind itself [air + ether]. This makes them creative, enthusiastic, and, for better or worse, often lost in their imagination. As such, they need the most sleep of the three doshas, and yet, for them, sleep is often the most elusive. They often suffer from insomnia.

Therefore, Vata people need to start winding down early, around 6:00 p.m., with habits and routines that cue the body and mind to begin settling. As their daily lives are often driven by spontaneity and impulsivity, they would benefit from a strict waking and bedtime. Ending the day with an evening meditation (such as the one provided in the link at the end) is an excellent way to calm Vata types.

Pitta Dosha and Sleep

Pitta doshas, due to the abundance of fire in their constitution, often have difficulty sleeping, often because they’re still working! And, perhaps, with an alcoholic beverage by their side. These habits increase the heat within their mind, preventing them from cooling down enough to get the rest they need.

Therefore, pitta types can help their sleep by staying cooler–both physically and emotionally—throughout the day. Learning how to manage stress, letting go when it’s called for, and other critical work/life balance skills are needed.

Pittas are advised to drink cooling teas, such as lavender, or specific bedtime tea blends, to help soothe and calm during the evening. They should sleep in light clothing without heavy coverings. If they wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work, it is helpful to keep a journal by the bed to write their thoughts down and remove the worry from the mind until the morning.

Kapha Dosha and Sleep

Kapha types, comprised of water and earth, are grounded individuals, well settled in their body, and generally have no trouble falling asleep, and sleeping well. But, they can often sleep too late into the morning, leading to a lasting sluggishness that is hard to shake off.

Therefore, kaphas are at their best when they wake before 6 am. Some tips to help with this include: setting a light timer, using alarm sounds that energize (not a shock!), or some gentle stretching to wake the body and mind.


How you move and think throughout the day impacts the kind of rest and rejuvenation you get at night. By knowing your Ayurvedic constitution, you can better make choices that will help you get the best sleep you can get.

Please enjoy this 11-minute guided audio to help any dosha type settle into that much-needed good night’s sleep.

Are you interested in an Ayurveda session with Keri to help with your sleep or overall health?

She’s also written an incredible memoir called Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness, which I highly recommend for any avid readers and spiritual seekers.

To contact Keri or order her book, please visit the following links:

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