We’ve all had those mornings…

You wake up from a terrible night’s sleep (or maybe no sleep at all) when it quickly descends upon you: brain fog.

For the rest of the day, you’re just not sharp. You can’t seem to focus. You uncharacteristically have to read or hear information repeatedly before you ‘get it.’ As the day wears on, you become cranky and short-tempered, too. This groggy scenario is a common one facing many Canadians.

In particular, among people aged 55 and over

  • 40-70% of older adults have chronic sleep problems
  • 43 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women say they have trouble falling or staying asleep “sometimes or most of the time”

Did you know the side effects of poor sleep can last well beyond one groggy, grumpy morning? Cutting-edge science is pulling back the covers on inadequate sleep, linking it to cognitive impairment, mood disorders, dementia and even Alzheimer’s disease.

So set your alarm. It’s time we all wake up to the crucial role sleep plays in cognitive performance and overall brain health.

Brain gains

Sleep is a requirement for proper brain function. In fact, it’s essential for learning. New information we take in during the day gets replayed in the brain while we slumber, allowing the data to consolidate in our memory.

The brain cycles through various stages of sleep each night. Stage two (also called slow-wave sleep) sharpens the motor skills we need to learn — critical for everyday actions such as how to type or play a musical instrument.

Experts say insufficient sleep can hinder learning ability by up to 40 per cent. Studies have also correlated sleep deficiency with trouble concentrating and making decisions. No wonder it’s hard to choose between coffee or tea on those drowsy mornings!

Even the Bard knew about the moody blues

In Macbeth, Shakespeare described sleep as the “balm of hurt minds” that “knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” Almost 500 years later, modern science bears that out. When subjects in one experiment had their sleep capped at just four and a half hours per night for one week, they reported feelings of sadness, anger, stress and mental exhaustion.

During the REM stage of sleep, emotional memories are processed by the brain. Without enough REM sleep, it’s harder for us to cope with trauma or other difficult experiences.

In addition, sleep deprivation messes with connections between the prefrontal cortex and the parts of the brain that process emotion. That’s why we’re sometimes hypersensitive, overly emotional or irrational when we’re tired.

The Alzheimer’s link

Scientific discoveries are bolstering the theory that getting a good quality and amount of sleep could help keep dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at bay. Various studies have shown that when we’re asleep:

  • We produce less of a protein called beta-amyloid, which can form plaque found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients
  • Small arteries in the brain dilate and increase intracranial blood flow, flushing away toxins like beta-amyloid and tau, another protein that forms tangles inside brain cells
  • The interstitial spaces between brain cells widen, lowering the chance that toxins will build up inside them

How to get a good night’s sleep

If restful, consistent shut-eye always seems like an unattainable dream to you, let your doctor or healthcare professional know about it. A simple questionnaire can let you know if you have deeper issues such as obstructive sleep apnea or if changes to your diet or activities can improve your overall sleep. You can also check out some of the meditation and health-focused classes at the YMCA to improve your mindfulness and activity levels. One morning, after getting the help you need, your brain will be well-rested enough to thank you for it!