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Here's Why Deep Sleep Is More Important Than Hours Of Sleep

Elizabeth Gerson
January 11, 2019
Elizabeth Gerson
By Elizabeth Gerson
mbg Contributor
Elizabeth Gerson is a former mindbodygreen intern and a student at Stanford University studying Psychology and Communication with a specialization in Health & Development.
Image by Maximilian Guy McNair MacEwan / Stocksy
January 11, 2019

As so many of us strive for that prized eight hours of sleep per night, new research suggests that we may be focused on the wrong facet of rest, at least when it comes to our cognitive health.

We already know that sleep is essential for Alzheimer's prevention. However, a recent study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine may have found a way to catch the disease much earlier on. 

Researchers followed 119 participants over the age of 60 for six nights of sleep, and what they found was that participants with fewer occurrences of deep sleep, as characterized by their brain waves, produced higher levels of a certain brain protein called tau. Elevated levels of tau in the central nervous system have been linked with Alzheimer's or other forms of brain damage.

Seeing that almost all of the study participants were registered as cognitively normal, these findings have huge implications for catching Alzheimer's before the traditional symptoms of memory impairment and disorientation arise. In fact, cognitive degeneration related to dementia can begin to take hold through proteins like tau up to two decades before symptoms appear.

So what does this all mean? It means that preserving sleep quality is an essential part of living a healthy lifestyle and protecting your brain health long into the future. Here are a few tips on catching those Z's:

Have a set nightly routine.

When it comes to winding down, establishing consistent habits before bed can help signal to your body that it's time for rest. Your nightly routine should involve activities that make you feel centered and relaxed, like mindful journaling or giving your skin some love. So long as it's tech-free, the possibilities are endless.

Limit tech and blue light.

Which brings us to the next point: Tech and sleep don't mix. Exposure to blue light has been shown to block the production of melatonin, one of the most important hormones needed for the onset of sleep. Try limiting tech to an hour before bed, but if you really can't go without your nightly Instagram updates or sending that last email, try using programs like the iPhone's "Night Shift" or f.lux that change your screens to warm light each night.

Don't work out before bed.

While this may be something late risers may not want to hear, scheduling your workouts too close to bedtime may get in the way of sleep. Smashing out a workout will leave you hot, sweaty, and with your heart pounding, which is not an optimal condition for relaxation. However, any exercise, regardless of timing, is better than none. Regular exercise has been linked to lower levels of insomnia1 and higher reports of quality sleep, for example.

Try meditation techniques.

You don't have to be a meditation expert to try your hand at mindfulness before bed. Focus on slow, consistent breaths to lower your heart rate and calm the mind. For a full-body release, try to relax each muscle, starting from your toes and working upward to the head (although you'll hopefully be sound asleep before you get there). You can even try guided meditations through apps like Headspace or practices of Yoga Nidra to put all your buzzing thoughts to rest.

Keep it cool.

Researchers suggest that the optimal temperature for sleep is somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. The body's core temperature declines2 at the onset of sleep, so ensuring that your sleep environment stays cool helps facilitate this transition and signals to your brain that it's time to wind down.

Elizabeth Gerson author page.
Elizabeth Gerson

Elizabeth Gerson is a former mindbodygreen intern and a student at Stanford University studying Psychology and Communication with a specialization in Health & Development. She has also written for and The Stanford Daily and runs a paleo(ish) food Instagram, @healthy_lizard.