S1E32. The Fifth Pillar Of Brain Health

Different authors present the data and their conclusions about brain health research in a variety of ways, but they all pretty much cover the same material. What differs is the number of factors they identify. Since people can keep about 7 things (plus or minus 2) in short-term memory, I decided I’ll go with 5 so that 97.5% of us will have an easier time remembering them.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about 4 of the 5 pillars of brain health: diet, exercise, cognitive challenge and social engagement. In my way of looking at things, the fifth pillar is a twofer: sleep and stress.

We all know that we don’t function well and we make a lot of mistakes when we don’t get a good night’s sleep. Another way of describing that experience is to say that our brains are compromised when we don’t get adequate sleep and that is what causes the errors in our waking performance. 

A lot goes on in our brains when we sleep, including the cleaning up of chemical waste generated during the day, pruning of unnecessary synapses, and consolidation of long-term memory. Need I say more about the need to establish a healthy sleep regimen?

I used to teach sleep hygiene on the inpatient behavioral health units where I worked. As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I emphasized habits you could develop to help you get a good night’s sleep which is critical for those battling mental illness. I talked about no caffeine after 12 noon, setting a fixed time to get into bed each night, establishing a going to bed routine (e.g., reading or listening to music for half an hour before getting in bed), writing down everything you need to do the next day so you don’t think about it, etc.

I told my patients it was important to only use the bedroom for sleeping. The idea was that you would develop an association between the room and sleep and so just walking into the room at bedtime would trigger a sleep response. They would invariably ask about sex and I would tell them that if you really are having trouble sleeping, then move the sex to the living room or anywhere else other than the bedroom. That suggestion never failed to generate hoots and howls!

The brain healthy recommendation is 7-9 hours of good sleep. I’m not getting that consistently, so we’re trying a couple of things. We’ve set bedtime at 11pm. We don’t eat anything after 8pm (it turns out that this is really good for losing weight, too!). The recommendation for sleeping room temperature is 65-75, so I set the thermostat at 73 just before getting into bed. I just ordered blackout curtains from Amazon to try to help extend our sleep in the morning. As for bedroom sex…well, we’ll see how these other adjustments work out first!

The relationship between stress and brain health is a little more complicated. There’s good stress and bad stress. The good kind motivates you to achieve your goals. The bad kind triggers your fight-or-flight system and doesn’t feel good. Chronic bad stress releases cortisol which, over time, can be toxic to your brain, so you want to keep it at a minimum.

I used to teach stress management techniques several times each week in group therapy at the hospitals where I worked. The go-to skill that everyone should have is deep breathing. Back in 2006, I taped my presentation and put it on YouTube so patients could access it after they left the hospital. It’s been viewed nearly 139,000 times since then. You can check it out here. (Warning: I recorded this in one take and didn’t realize that there would be a ghostly ultraviolet glow once I turned out the light. You might want to watch it with your eyes closed!)

I can’t say that I’m experiencing much bad stress at all these days. So I’ll just leave it at that. Life is good!

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