Most of us don’t need an expert to explain that poor sleep makes us mentally sluggish. We’ve all had personal experiences where a bad night’s sleep leaves us feeling groggy and dull-witted. Yet for many people, achieving greater mental clarity by getting better and deeper sleep is not as simple as snapping your fingers. If you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, sleeping restfully, waking up at the right time and feeling rested during the day, you may feel like you’ve already tried everything. Yet there are probably still things you could do to get your sleep on track so you can regularly achieve a good night’s rest.

Why sleep matters

Experts from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation all agree that adults should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night. Sleep is critical for overall health and has been shown in studies to play a crucial role in our ability to learn new skills and retain information in our short-term memories. A lack of sleep makes it harder for us to focus because our ability to regulate our emotions is diminished. Even retaining what we’ve managed to learn is harder if we’re chronically sleep-deprived, since it’s during sleep that our brains file away newly learned information for long-term storage and retrieval. Short-changing that process can make the entire learning endeavor feel like we’re just spinning our wheels.

Sleep disorders

Sometimes there’s a physical reason for poor sleep. The good news is that sleep disorders are reversible, which is why it’s critical that you address them by talking to your doctor so you can get a diagnosis and get started on a treatment.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common sleep disorder in which the airway becomes temporarily blocked during sleep. This not only results in disturbed sleep but also repeatedly deprives the brain of oxygen during the night, with potential long-term consequences for cognition. On average, people with untreated OSA are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment 10 years earlier than their peers, and with Alzheimer’s Disease five years earlier. The hallmark of OSA is snoring. If you snore regularly, talk to your doctor about your risk for OSA. If you’re diagnosed, you’ll likely be prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine that can prevent the blockage of your airway during sleep. Not only does CPAP usage immediately lower your risk of long-term cognitive decline, it can actually reverse OSA-related damage that has already occurred in your brain.

People with restless legs syndrome (RLS) experience an unbearable urge to move their limbs just as they’re starting to fall asleep. The feeling is often accompanied by a “creepy-crawly” sensation. It can be extremely disruptive to sleep. Fortunately, several drugs are available to treat RLS, so tell your doctor if you begin to experience these symptoms.

Improving sleep without drugs

If you don’t have a diagnosed sleeping disorder yet still struggle with getting enough quality rest, there are several things to try before you turn to medications. It’s very common for people to complain about not getting enough sleep while doing nothing to correct the bad habits that make getting deeper sleep impossible. If you’re serious about leveraging sleep to improve your focus, try these:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. That includes weekends. Not getting enough sleep during the week leaves you feeling foggy-headed, but oversleeping on the weekends in an effort to make up for the deficit can do the same. Establish a single bedtime and set the same morning alarm for each day, at least seven hours apart, and stick to that schedule religiously.
  • Don’t consume any beverage containing caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime. That’s a general rule of thumb. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, so you may have to make a rule for yourself that you’ll not consume caffeine any time after noon, for example.
  • No screens within the hour before bed. If you’re lying in bed scrolling on your phone, you’re exposing yourself to blue light, which impedes sleep, as well as overstimulating your brain.
  • Turn off the lights and make sure your room is quiet and at a temperature conducive to good sleep.
  • Don’t eat late meals or drink too many liquids in the pre-bedtime hours. Indigestion can keep you awake, as can a full bladder.
  • Get enough exercise during the day to leave you feeling pleasantly tired at bedtime. But if you haven’t exercised earlier in the day, don’t try to make up for it just before bed, since exercise can leave you feeling hyped-up rather than relaxed.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before bed. Yes, it might make you feel drowsy, but it tends to cause people to nod off for a short while and then wake up unable to fall back asleep.
  • If seven hours of good sleep are still not enough for you, don’t be afraid to experiment with more. Sleep requirements are somewhat idiosyncratic, and some people might truly need eight or even nine hours per night in order to feel refreshed. Perversely, our society frowns on people who sleep a lot, so there can be a lot of pressure to sell yourself short. But it’s your own health and cognition at stake, and how much sleep you get is nobody else’s business.

Sleep and medications

Sometimes a sleep problem is caused by a medication or by interactions between two or more meds. One of your first steps in addressing sleep issues and getting deeper sleep should be to examine, along with your doctor or pharmacist, all of your medications with an eye toward sleep issues. You may be able to drop certain medications or substitute them for alternatives that will not cause sleep problems.

In some instances, a doctor may agree to prescribe a sleep aid. But bear in mind that, while such medications may in fact help you sleep, they often interfere with cognition, so if your goal is to get better sleep to improve your focus, a medication may be counterintuitive. And if you’ve already begun to experience dementia or cognitive decline, sleep aids may well exacerbate the condition. Always consult carefully with your doctor before starting a new med.

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