Alarm clock

Why you need to get some shut-eye (and how to do it)

15 March 2019
We all know sleep is important for focus, but did you know it could also be the key to keeping your brain healthy as you age? Our new research centre is at the forefront of these discoveries.

On World Sleep Day, the University of Sydney launched a new centre of academic excellence exploring the link between sleep and dementia.

Led by Professor Sharon Naismith, the Centre of Research Excellence to Optimise Sleep in Brain Ageing and Neurodegeneration (CogSleep) will investigate the relationship between sleep disturbances and brain degeneration.

“Sleep as we now know it plays a key role in detoxifying the brain – so our brain is a bit like a plumbing system and sleep facilitates that. It gets rid of all of the toxins and harmful proteins that we know are involved in many types of dementia,” said Professor Naismith, Head of the Healthy Brain Ageing program at the University’s Brain and Mind Centre.

A unique collaboration between the University’s multidisciplinary initiatives and the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, the Centre will investigate how sleep-wake disturbance contributes to neurodegeneration, conduct new clinical trials, and test innovative technology to improve detection and treatment of sleep disturbance.

The connection between sleep and dementia

“This is a significant challenge facing our ageing population as we know that 10 to 20 years before symptoms of dementia present there are already changes happening in the brain,” said Professor Naismith.

“If we can develop innovative cost-effective technology to identify those people most at risk of dementia and get their sleep problems treated early, we may be able to stop brain degeneration in its tracks,” said Professor Ron Grunstein, Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Sydney and Woolcock Institute for Medical Research.

What can you do to establish good sleep habits early on?

Expert tips for getting a good night’s sleep.

1. Wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends

This helps to set your circadian rhythms so you can naturally fall asleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day. What are circadian rhythms? They’re the biological processes where your body clock knows when you need to be awake and when you need to sleep.

2. Avoid using your smartphone in the evening

Bright light around us can signal to our brains that we need to stay awake and the constant pinging of being tagged in a new post or getting a message from a friend keeps your brain firing. It’s a good idea to switch your phone off or turn it on to night mode to avoid the blue light, as well as keep it away from you to reduce temptation,

3. Drink caffeine early in the day, not late afternoon

Did you know that the half-life of caffeine is about five to six hours? That’s the amount of time it takes for your body to process and eliminate half of the caffeine. So, if you have a cup of coffee at 3 pm, you’ll still have half the amount of caffeine in your system at 9 pm. The amount of time is different depending on your weight, age, and overall health. If you’re pregnant, the time can be up to 15 hours.

4. Beware of daytime naps, they count in your total sleep time

Day time naps can leave you feeling groggy because they require waking up from a deeper sleep. It's also important not to nap past 2 pm in the day because this can make it hard to fall asleep at night. If essential, keep them under 20 minutes and before 2 pm.

5. Make sure your room is the right temperature

Making sure the room temperature is right will help you get the best night’s slumber. If your room is cool, rather than warm, it will be much easier to sleep. Thermostat settings lower or higher than what's recommended can lead to restlessness and affect the quality of sleep.

6. Keep your body and brain active

Cognitive and physical activity can promote sleep quality. Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory and thinking skills as well as promoting sleep quality. Physical activity increases time spent in deep sleep, the most physically restorative sleep phase.

7. Watch out for anxiety and depression

Stress, anxiety and depression may cause sleeping problems or make existing problems worse. Did you know that one of the common signs of depression is insomnia or an inability to fall to asleep? It’s important that you’re not confusing a bad sleep cycle with something else.

8. Avoid exercise and hot baths too close to bedtime

Late night exercise impacts your temperature, heart rate and sleep cycle. The hormones that help keep your body going during a tough workout (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol) are likely keeping you up and even though this helps you exercise, it’s not going to help you fall asleep. The same can be said for temperatures that are too warm in the bath or shower.

9. Avoid sleeping pills, they do not help sleep in the long run

A sleeping pill may be effective at ending your sleep problems in the short-term, but it's important to make sure you understand everything you need to know about sleeping pills. They genuinely don’t help with sleep in the long run and can cause adverse health effects. Avoid sedatives when you can.

10. Talk to your doctor if you snore or gasp for air during sleep, or are excessively sleepy during the day

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where the upper passages of your airway close off, interrupting your breathing and depriving you of oxygen until you wake up and start breathing again. If you don’t have a partner to catch you snoring, the only signs of sleep apnea you may notice are morning headaches or extreme sleepiness during the day. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your sleeping habits.

Sleep plays a vital role in your overall health and wellbeing, make sleep a top priority and incorporate some of the tips above to get an optimal night’s rest.

Michelle Blowes

Media and PR Adviser (Health)