If you saw the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out, then you may already have a good idea of how sleep impacts health and memory. As a neuropsychologist, I loved how the movie accurately depicted brain function, thanks in part to the two neuropsychologists who consulted on the film.
Parents and teens frequently ask me if sleep is critical to health, learning, and peak performance. Let’s take a look.
What important functions does the body perform during sleep?
- Repair. During sleep, our bodies make hormones that repair muscles and organs that may have been stressed (that third set of pushups) or damaged (that nasty paper cut) each day.
- Cleansing. Just as you may detox during the day, the body detoxes at night, removing toxic byproducts of body functions. Toxins can damage enzymes, which can impact — for example — the production of hemoglobin. They can also displace calcium — which may lead to bone loss and overall skeletal weakness — and damage organs, DNA, and cell membranes. You get the idea. Toxins are bad, and during sleep, toxins are removed.
- Memory formation. Researchers found that rats whose sleep was repeatedly interrupted tended to learn tasks much more slowly than rats with uninterrupted sleep. Bottom line: uninterrupted sleep is important for learning. The scientific term for memory formation is hippocampal replay. In Inside Out, memory spheres move from headquarters to bookshelves. Seen from above in Inside Out, the bookshelves take on the shape of a human brain, and it’s during sleep that the memories move from headquarters to the bookshelves, with bookshelves representing long term memory.
How much sleep does a person need?
The answer varies by individual, but a good target is seven to eight hours of sleep per night, minimum (teens really benefit from nine hours of sleep per night, if possible). The more intense your day, either physically or mentally, the more sleep you’ll need. And because the effects of sleep deprivation (e.g., trouble focusing, inattention, “foggy” mind) are felt 48 hours after the deprivation, be sure to maximize your sleep on each of the two nights before a big exam.
What are some scientifically-supported hints to fall asleep quickly and to sleep well?
- Not using screens at least half an hour before going to bed because the blue light emitted by screens stops your brain from producing melatonin, a hormone regulating your sleep phases.
- Cooling your room.
- Taking a warm shower before bed.
- Wearing socks to bed.
- Scenting your room with lavender.
Sleep is essential. Experiment with these tips and discover what works best for you. And for more tips to maximize success on test day, check out what snacks to pack and what to do in the 24 hours before the test.
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