Busy lives filled with work stresses and family tensions can make it difficult to get the rest and relaxation we need. It’s easy to focus on keeping our bodies fit and functioning, and neglecting the health of our brains. Brain health isn’t just about emotional wellbeing. It’s about protecting our brains from disease and dementia and maintaining healthy mental function as we grow older.

Sleep and brain health

A great night’s sleep can restore our energy and make us feel rejuvenated. But sleep is more than an opportunity to rest, it is also vital to the healthy function of our bodies and our brains. Getting too little quality sleep can increase the risk of illness, mental health problems and dementia.

You don’t need me to tell you that it can be difficult to get things done when you’re exhausted. It can be hard to concentrate and your brain may feel foggy and slow. The research evidence backs this up. Sleep is important for storing and processing memories and re-establishing healthy brain function. Lack of sleep affects our ability to perform effectively, impairing memory, reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail.

Sleep and memory

Our brains naturally shrink and decline as we get older, which can have an impact on memory and function. Sleep quality also deteriorates as we age and these factors may well be linked.

When researchers examined the brains of older adults, they found there was less of the important slow-wave activity that occurs during deep sleep. The brains of elderly individuals showed degeneration in the area of the brain responsible for generating slow-waves. Neuroscientist Dr Matthew Walker from the University of California, Berkeley said:

‘When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information. But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.’

Brain detox

Researchers have found that sleep helps flush toxins from the brain. These toxins build up when you’re awake and are cleared by the brain’s ‘glymphatic’ system. This is a network of channels and vessels that carries the clear cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and clears away waste products.

There is evidence that this glymphatic system can remove the protein, amyloid, from the brain. This abnormal protein builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and has been linked with causing progressive brain damage. Brain levels of amyloid drop when we sleep, suggesting that getting enough sleep may help clear toxins, prevent protein accumulation and may help to reduce the risk of developing dementia.

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Sleeping for health

Too little sleep is bad for your health. Insufficient sleep can make you vulnerable to chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. We know that factors that affect the health of your heart also impact on the health of your brain. All these diseases could potentially increase your risk of developing dementia, whether through the mini-strokes of vascular dementia, the development of Alzheimer’s disease or through mixed dementia. Jeffrey Iliff, a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, said:

‘Changes in sleep habits may actually be setting the stage for dementia.’

Stress and brain health

We all get stressed out now every now and then, but too much stress can affect our physical, mental and emotional health. When we’re under pressure, the body releases chemicals to boost the blood pressure and ramp up blood sugar levels.

These stress hormones are designed to help us fight or flee, which was great when we were living in caves, fighting predators. But in today’s society when stress is sustained, psychological and ongoing – it can predispose you to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, which can seriously affect your brain health.

Stress can change the structure of the brain and have long-term effects on the nervous system. There is evidence that sustained stress can lead to atrophy and degeneration of the brain. These changes can affect understanding, memory, cognition and our ability to cope with further stress. The degree of change is related to the stress level, duration and the individual response to the pressure, so it’s important to try and manage your stress and mitigate wherever you can.

Nap happy

If you’re struggling to get the rest you need, why not try a power nap? Naps can help you catch up on sleep and recharge your batteries. When you’re stressed and tired, a short daytime catnap can make all the difference. It can alleviate the impact of sleep deprivation on your body, decrease the release of stress chemicals and help protect your body from the damaging effects of stress.

Turn off the lights or use an eye mask to help you drop off, your body is designed to respond to light. Remember to cover up, your metabolism slows down when you sleep, so a throw will stop you feeling the chill.

If you find that napping makes you groggy, try keeping the nap short and sweet. Set an alarm – twenty to thirty minutes is the right length for a perfect restorative snooze. It’ll perk you up instead of making you feel heavy and sluggish on waking.

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How to get the sleep you need

You know that sleep is important for your brain health, but sometimes getting the rest you need is easier said than done. Sleep disruption is more common as we get older, and the menopause, illness, pain and dementia can all disturb sleep. But you don’t have to toss, turn and put up with it. There are ways of improving your sleep quality, without resorting to medication.

Control symptoms

Arthritis pain, prostate problems, heart failure and depression can all affect your sleep. If you’re up and down all night, because of pain, or the need to pass urine, see your doctor. They may be able to change your medication or alter the dose schedule so that you can have undisturbed rest.

Avoid caffeine before bed

Caffeine and alcohol may be enjoyable but they can also disrupt your sleep. Try and cut down. Replace with decaffeinated versions or sip a soothing camomile tea at bedtime.

Cut down on screen time

Tablets, tellies and screens can be overstimulating and the blue spectrum light can affect sleep. Keep the bedroom calm and restful. Give soaps and social media a swerve when you’re headed for bed.

Regular routines

Irregular sleep hours will upset your body clock. Regular bedtime routines work for babies and they’re great for grown-ups too!

Keep it dark

Your body responds to light. Darkness will make it easier to drop off and light is energising. If there’s lots of ambient light in your area, try black-out blinds or an eye mask, to help soothe you to sleep.


We’ve all been there. Stress can make you too tense to sleep, then you worry that you’re not sleeping. It’s a vicious circle! Try relaxation exercises, deep abdominal breathing, yoga or a hypnosis app to help you switch off.

Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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