Use sleep to improve memory

Want to improve your memory? Get a good night’s sleep.

Forget brain training and crosswords. Improving your sleep is one of the the best things you can do to stop forgetting and enhance your memory.

I unpack how to use sleep to improve memory and share three science-backed methods to help you get to sleep, stay asleep and wake feel rested.

Sleep and memory are inextricably linked

Getting enough rest helps you once you wake up, and sleeping after learning can consolidate this information into memories, allowing you to store them in your brain.

A healthy adult’s sleep cycle consists of four distinct stages. The first two stages are considered light non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the third is deep (or “slow-wave”) NREM sleep. These three stages prepare your brain to learn new information the following day. Not sleeping or getting enough sleep can lower your learning abilities by as much as 40%.

During these NREM stages, the brain also sorts through your various memories from the previous day, filtering out important memories and eliminating other information. These selected memories will become more concrete as deep NREM sleep begins, and this process will continue during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Emotional memories are also processed in the REM stage, which can help you cope with difficult emotional experiences.

Most dreaming occurs in REM sleep. The thalamus of the brain transmits cues from your five senses to the cerebral cortex, a thin layer of the brain that interprets and processes information from your memories. The thalamus is largely inactive during NREM stages, but when REM sleep begins, it will relay images, sounds, and other sensations to the cerebral cortex that are then integrated into your dreams.

Sleep loss leads to memory problems

If you don’t get enough sleep, you experience the effects of sleep deprivation. Difficulty remembering things is one common symptom. Since the brain does not have sufficient time to create new pathways for the information you’ve recently learned, sleep deprivation often affects how memories are consolidated. Other potential cognitive impacts include trouble learning and focusing, reduced decision-making skills, and poor emotional and behavioural control.

If you are chronically sleep deprived, missing out on sleep over successive years and decades, you are putting yourself at risk of long-term memory problems and dementia. When you sleep, a deep cleaning team in your brain, called the glympahatic system, goes to work cleaning up the metabolic debris left behind in your brain from the day before. Amongst this brain waste is one of the proteins, beta amyloid, which kills brain cells and causes memory problems in Alzheimer’s disease. So when you miss out on sleep, slow wave sleep in particular, this toxic protein is left behind, building up year after year, increasing your risk of brain damage and dementia.

Science-backed ways to sleep better

So how can ensure you get reliable, good sleep every night? There are three proven methods based on the latest sleep science that give you the best chance of getting to sleep and then staying asleep.

1. Set fixed wake-up and sleep times 

It’s close to impossible for your body to get accustomed to a healthy sleep routine if you’re constantly waking up and gong to sleep at different times. Pick a wake-up time and sleep time and stick with them, even on weekends, holidays or other days when you would otherwise be tempted to sleep in.

Try and adjust your sleep schedule gradually. When you need to change your sleep schedule, it’s best to make adjustments little-by-little and over time with a maximum difference of 1-2 hours per night. This allows your body and circadian rhythm - the biological clock that regulates your sleep - to get used to the changes so that following your new schedule is more sustainable.

2. Create a pre-bedtime routine

If you have a hard time falling asleep, it’s natural to think that the problem starts when you lie down in bed. In reality though, the lead-up to bedtime plays a crucial role in preparing you to fall asleep quickly and effortlessly.

Poor pre-bedtime habits are a major contributor to insomnia and other sleep problems. Changing these habits can take time, but the effort can pay off by making you more relaxed and ready to fall asleep when bedtime rolls around.

As much as possible, try to create a consistent routine that you follow each night because this helps reinforce healthy habits and signals to brain and body that bedtime is approaching. As part of that routine, incorporate these three tips.

Wind down for at least 30 minutes. It’s much easier to doze off smoothly if you are at-ease. Quiet reading, low-impact stretching, listening to soothing music, and mindful relaxation are really good ways to get into the right frame of mind for sleep.

Lower the lights in your house. Avoiding bright light can help you transition to bedtime and contribute to your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.

Make sure you disconnect from devices. Phones, tablets and computers can keep your brain wired, making it hard to truly wind down. The blue light from these devices can also blocks your natural production of melatonin. As much as possible, try to disconnect for 30 minutes or more before going to bed.

3. Foster proactive sleep methods during the day

Setting up your brain and body for high-quality sleep is an all-day affair. A handful of steps that you can take during the day can pave the way for better sleep at night.

Expose yourself to natural light. Your internal clock, that circadian rhythm I mentioned, is regulated by light exposure. Sunlight has the strongest effect, so try to take in daylight by getting outside or opening up windows or blinds to natural light. Getting a dose of daylight first thing in the morning can help tune your circadian rhythm for sleep at night.

Find time to move your body. Daily exercise has wide ranging benefits for health, and the changes it initiates in energy use and body temperature can promote restorative sleep. But don’t do intense exercise close to bedtime because it hinders your brain and body’s ability to settle down before sleep.

Monitor your caffeine intake. Caffeinated drinks, including coffee, tea, and fizzy drinks, are among the most popular beverages in the world. Some people are tempted to use the jolt of energy from caffeine to try to overcome daytime sleepiness, but that approach isn’t sustainable and can cause long-term sleep deprivation. To avoid this, keep an eye on your caffeine intake and avoid it later in the day when it can be a barrier to falling sleep.

Be mindful of alcohol. alcohol can induce drowsiness, so some people are keen on a nightcap before bed. Unfortunately, alcohol affects the brain in ways that can lower sleep quality, and for that reason, it’s best to avoid alcohol in the lead-up to bedtime.

Don’t eat too late. It can be harder to fall asleep if your body is still digesting a big dinner. To keep food-based sleep disruptions to a minimum, try to avoid late dinners and minimise especially fatty or spicy foods before bedtime. If you need an evening snack, opt for something light and healthy.

Reserve your bed for sleep and sex only. If you have a comfortable bed, you may be tempted to hang out there while doing all kinds of activities, but this can actually cause problems at bedtime. You want a strong mental association between your bed and sleep, so try to keep activities in your bed limited strictly to sleep and sex.

Better sleep is the science-backed way to better memory and clear thinking, not brain games or crosswords. 




Straight To Your Inbox

We'll never give your information to anybody and we'll only send you content that you want, when you want it.




Straight To Your Inbox

We'll never give your information to anybody and we'll only send you content that you want, when you want it.