The One Habit A Neuroscientist Prioritizes Over All Others For Brain Health
If you're pushing yourself to get out of bed for an early morning workout, consider this permission to sleep through the alarm. While exercise is essential for overall health, neglecting sleep might cancel out the brain-supporting benefits.
"Of all the healthy brain habits, sleep still seems to be the one that people put on the back burner," says Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of The Source. "In my opinion, it is more important than diet, exercise, hydration, and even meditation," she adds.
Why is sleep more important for the brain?
When we're sleeping, the brain is repairing cells, restoring energy, and creating new memories. When we forgo sleep to stay up late watching TV, or struggle to fall asleep due to stress, anxiety, or other external influences, the brain doesn't have time to recuperate.
Diet, exercise, hydration, and meditation all support the brain in various ways. However, "If you are not getting a sufficient amount of sleep, you will not have a sufficient amount of energy to tackle all of these other things," Swart says.
Think about it: When you're both hungry and exhausted, you may be more likely to order takeout than prepare a nutritious meal. If you're sleep-deprived during a workday, you might prioritize coffee over water, leading to dehydration. And rather than staying present during meditation, well, you may just drift into a light slumber.
Not only does sleep allow the brain to get rid of excess waste and increase energy levels, but it also supports gut health, immune functioning, and overall mood1 (hence the term: waking up on the wrong side of the bed).
How to promote better sleep.
Poor sleep affects us beyond nighttime tossing and turning. The effects of sleep deprivation on the brain can end up influencing other areas of our health and lifestyle choices. Here are a few ways to promote better sleep:
- Stick to a nightly routine and bedtime.
- Try sleeping naked.
- If your partner keeps you up at night, consider a sleep divorce.
- Figure out how many hours of sleep you need.
- Wind down before bed without electronics.
- Take a sleep-supporting supplement.
- Keep your bedroom cool.
Sacrificing sleep for exercise, work, or other responsibilities is actually counterproductive. You'll get more out of your day if you have more energy to put into it, so give your brain and your body time to sleep.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.