Imagine if, every night after you fell asleep, little fairies came and organized your life. What if they sorted through the papers and emails and messages and events of your day, got rid of the ones that were creating clutter and chaos, and organized those that were important?

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Well, that sort of thing may actually be happening, but instead of happening in your email inbox or on your cluttered kitchen counter, it’s going on right inside your brain. And the fairy in this case is sleep itself.

Too often in our busy world we think of sleep as something we must give in to when we feel too tired to keep going. It takes valuable hours out of our life that we could use to get things done.

But actually, much is happening while we sleep. New research in mice found that the connections made within the brain – called synapses – shrink during sleep. This apparently allows them to rest and prepare for a new day of learning and doing. Like deleting spam from your inbox, your brain gets rid of the connections that are taking up space and stealing our attention – all while you sleep. This makes space for new information and connections that will be made tomorrow. Additional research suggests this may be the case in humans as well as mice. Basically, we sleep so we can continue to learn and use our brains efficiently.

This new information about sleep adds to the list of benefits we already know sleep gives us. In addition to allowing us to feel refreshed and alert, adequate sleep plays a role in:

  • Weight control,
  • Memory,
  • Longevity,
  • Reducing Inflammation,
  • Stress control,
  • Preventing accidents, and
  • Improving mood.

This is wonderful news, but knowing the benefits of sleep and actually getting adequate sleep are two completely different things. Fortunately there are steps you can take to reap the benefits of improved sleep. The National Sleep Foundation promotes sleep hygiene, “a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.” Habits that promote improved sleep include:

  • Limiting daytime naps,
  • Avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, before bed,
  • Getting regular exercise,
  • Avoiding foods that will disrupt your sleep by causing heartburn or indigestion,
  • Getting adequate exposure to natural light during the day,
  • Establishing a bedtime routine, and
  • Creating a pleasing sleep environment.

Evaluate your sleep habits and see if you can improve your sleep hygiene to get better rest. And if you are having difficulty getting adequate sleep in spite of good habits, see your doctor. It could be a sign of an underlying health issue and your doctor can help pinpoint the problem.