What Happens While You Sleep – and why it is so important

During sleep, your brain goes into a cleansing and restorative mode.  It washes away all of the unimportant and unnecessary thoughts and memories to maintain space for all the memories you need to function, and reorganizes the free space for new memories you’ll make tomorrow.  In a nutshell, your brain gets refreshed when you sleep.  And this process is so important because it aids in the healing of dementia.

A Computer Analogy

To illustrate, have you ever run the “defragment and optimize” program on your computer to make it run better and  faster?  It’s a similar concept of what happens to your brain when you sleep.  I used to watch Janet do this to my computer.  Speaking of Janet, I think I’ll defer the telling of this story to her.  Between the two of us,  she’s more computer savvy.

“That ok with you, Janet?”

“Sure, Mom.  You’re certainly a tough act to follow, but I’ll do my best.”  🙂

A computer hard drive is similar to the human brain. It has memories, and it uses those memories to make the computer run fast and function well. But sometimes it gets slow, does strange things, or simply freezes.

Most times it’s because the brain of the computer (the hard drive) becomes fragmented. All the memories are disorganized and scattered. It needs treatment.

Let me show you it works.  

Below is a picture of the “Defrag and Optimize” system tool for a computer. This is the program people generally run when the computer is running slow. It cleans everything up for a faster running machine.


All the blue squares in the above screenshot represent segments of the hard drive (or computer brain), that are in good shape.  Think of those as important memories stored in your brain – the ones you need to keep.  The gold squares are segments  that are a little messed up, but unmovable – like memories that need repaired.  And the red squares are segments that are totally fragmented, no longer necessary, and need to go.  Those are like unimportant memories that are taking up unnecessary space in your brain.  

The computer hard drive, like the human brain, has a limited amount of space.

And since there’s only so much real estate in your brain, it needs to routinely downsize to maintain space for important (blue) memories, and free up (white) space for new ones.  We see all these squares on the screen because the “Analyze” button was pressed to give a visual representation of the state of things on the computer hard drive (its brain). 

The white areas represent free space.  But it is scattered all over the place. There will be more white free space for new memories once the red useless memories get removed.  

When we sleep

Computer hard drives are like our brains.  There is only so much space.  And when we sleep, our brains first analyze our memories to decide which ones to keep, and which ones to destroy, based on importance.  Our brains also reorganize all the free space, which will hold new memories, so it is not scattered all over the place. 

Lack of sleep prohibits the brain from completing the process.

To Defrag a Computer:

To begin defragmentation we simply press the “Defrag” button, and the cleansing begins.  The more fragmented the hard drive is, the longer the process takes.  If we press the pause button, at different times, it takes even longer.  And if we stop the process altogether, it will not finish optimizing the hard drive.  Files will remain fragmented and scattered.  

To Defrag Our Brains:

To defrag our brains, we simply go to sleep.  When  we pause sleep to go to the bathroom, our brain cleansing also pauses.  If we wake up, and can’t get back to sleep, our brain stops the defrag process, leaving our brain as scattered as it was before we woke up.  So the next night, we may need even more sleep to finish the previous job, and complete the new one.

How long does it take?

In addition, our brain performs different cleaning functions throughout the various sleep cycles.  If we are not asleep long enough to complete all of the cycles, it results in only partial defragmentation.  This is especially true for the REM cycles.  What’s more, our brains repeat the cycles several times during the night.  It’s amazing that our brains are just as active during sleep as when we are awake – but for different reasons.

Our brains require at least 7 hours of sleep to successfully defrag and reorganize cells and synaptic connections for optimal performance.  That does not mean 7 hours in the bed – it means 7 hours of quality sleep.  So some people may need to be in the bed 9 hours to actually get 7 meaningful hours of sleep, due to waking up several times during the night.

This process is a partial description of “neural plasticity” – where our brains reorganize cells and synaptic connections to keep important memories, dump the rest, and refresh broken synapses between memories we need to function.  Google neural plasticity.  It’s a fascinating topic.

(The remainder of this post contains some ideas I learned from Michael Breus, PhD, while listening to his interview on the newest “Regain Your Brain” series.)

Blood Pressure medication can cause sleep problems.

Medications, especially blood pressure pills, can sometimes cause sleep disturbance.  You may be able to remedy this by asking your doctor to put you on the lowest effective dose.

Sleep Apnea: the sleep robber

Untreated sleep apnea can also cause sleep disturbance.  Using a CPap or mouth device can help here.

Losing sleep due to pain

Pain can also cause you to lose sleep.  Using a nighttime analgesic can help with both the pain and sleep, as it includes something to help you rest.  Mom was cautioned by her kidney doctor to avoid ibuprofen.  He said it was especially hard on the kidneys.  His recommendation was Tylenol.  Just a tip from experience.

Losing sleep over worrying about something

Worry from anxiety or depression is a huge reason people lose sleep.  If you’re worrying over something, it’s hard to turn off your thoughts, and get to sleep.  A couple of things might be helpful here.  About an hour before going to bed, write down what is concerning you, and allow yourself to think about it for several minutes, then put your concerns away for the night as you put your journal down.  This is referred to as a “Worry Journal.”  When thoughts come to your mind as you try to sleep, tell yourself that you’ll think about it tomorrow morning.

Should you take sleep aids or sleeping pills?

First of all, there are several things you can do to try to improve your sleep before resorting to pills.  And sleeping pills, even non-addictive ones like Ambien, can be more habit-forming than you realize.  Sleeping pills can also contribute to falls, especially if you wake up to go to the bathroom.  But if you look at the reasons you have trouble sleeping, you may be able to find a good remedy, naturally.

Certain sounds can actually help you sleep

Sometimes it helps to focus on some sound in the room, such as a fan or a TV program.  If you focus your mind on something else, the worry thoughts will likely fade away.  And yes, it is quite ok to fall asleep with the TV on.  You can set a sleep timer on the TV to turn off after an amount of time.  The blue backlight of a TV is not that much of a concern of keeping you awake since it is generally across the room from you.

I have used the TV program, “Frasier” for several years as my personal sleep aid.  Although I have no idea how many times I’ve gone through each of the 11 seasons, but I’m sure it has been many.  I pretty much have all the lines memorized – and use “Frasier” because it’s humorous and positive.  It provides just enough distraction from my worries to lull me into sleep. 

Put down that cell phone or tablet an hour before you plan to go to sleep.

The blue backlight triggers cortisol production in your brain, as does sunlight.  Cortisol tells your brain it should be awake.  Cortisol is a great thing in the morning when you want to be awake.  But it’s not good when you want to sleep.

Promote natural Melatonin production.

Melatonin production is what you want working in your brain at night, and thankfully your brain produces it, naturally.  It tells your brain that it’s time for sleeping.  

If you decide to watch TV or read in bed, keep the room dimly lit to encourage maximum melatonin production.  You may even want to put a dimmer switch in your bathroom so those nightly trips don’t trigger cortisol due to bright bathroom light.  

Melatonin supplements for older folks

In older persons, the brain’s ability to produce melatonin often decreases with age, and taking melatonin supplements may help – but only if they seriously cannot sleep – like if they wake up, and can’t go back to sleep right away.  Melatonin, if used, should be taken about 90 minutes before bedtime to give it time to send the right messages to your brain.  

Just so you know, Melatonin does not make you sleepy – it simply gives your brain the signal that it is time to sleep.  Most places sell melatonin in too large of doses, which is no more helpful, and can lead to side effects.  The amount needed is only 0.5-1 mg.  Trader Joe’s sells them at this dosage, and I’m sure other places do, as well.  However, you should check with your doctor before taking melatonin because it can interact with certain blood pressure medications. 

Banana Tea

Banana tea may help you sleep.  Simply slice the banana, peeling and all, and boil in water, then drink the banana water as tea.  I have not tried this, but it sounds interesting.

Counting backwards

Another neat trick to use if worry thoughts are keeping you awake is to count backwards from 300 by 3s.  It takes focus to do this, which overpowers your worry thoughts, and you’ll likely be asleep way before finishing the countdown.

Using sleep aids as a last resort.

If all of the above fails, you can try OTC sleep aids or prescription sleep medication.  But this should be your last resort because they are psychologically habit forming (even if not physically addictive), and some studies are being done now that indicate using sleep aids and pills may be a contributing factor to the development of dementia.

In closing . . .

Mom had quite a bit of trouble sleeping during the last year of her life.  However, her sleep improved greatly during that last magical month of her life.  Her careworkers at the memory care facility dimmed her lighting at night.  They also played the TV until after she fell asleep.  Before bedtime, Mom also had bedtime snacks – like tuna or chicken salad sandwiches with milk.

Her nurse also tucked her in, and talked with her a little while, before hugging her ‘goodnight’.  Perhaps better sleep also contributed to the start of her dementia reversal.  

I hope you found this information helpful, and it has been my pleasure to share it with you.  

Nighty Night.



Dr. Breus on the ideal sleep environment:


Podcast – Michael Breus, PhD: Sleep Tips


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