By Andrea Kane, CNN
(CNN) – With modern life so jam-packed with activities and stimulation, it is hard to completely unplug and relax. But that’s something our brain needs to repair and restore itself.
The one (mostly) sure-fire place for our brain to go for some downtime is slumberland. That’s why it’s crucial to get enough sleep.
“What’s going on in the brain, in layman’s terms, is essentially our brain is getting a chance to not be consciously engaged in … task switching all day long,” Victoria Garfield, a senior research fellow at the Medical Research Council Unit for Lifelong Health and Aging and a professor at University College London, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta.
“Our cognitive function is going to improve as a result. And you’ll feel better the next day because our brain cells are having a chance to rest and regenerate and replenish,” she said.
Garfield has been studying sleep for a decade. “One of my primary interests for the last 10 years has been around understanding why we need to sleep properly, why sleep is so important for the brain and the body, especially as we get older,” she said.
Decades of evidence supports the idea that sleeping too little or too much is associated with increased risk of conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, having a heart attack, dementia, getting a sleep apnea diagnosis, anxiety and depression, she added.
Garfield’s team recently found that habitual daytime napping is associated with a larger total brain volume. The study, published in the journal Sleep Health in June, analyzed data, including MRIs, from more than 35,000 adults in the UK Biobank.
How much larger? According to Garfield, about 15 cubic centimeters, which her team calculated to equate to between 2.5 and 6.5 years of aging. “Quite a big thing in terms of the age of the brain. And we think that’s really important because a lower total brain volume is linked to certain diseases, earlier mortality and higher stress levels,” she said.
What can you do to make sure your brain is well-rested? Garfield has five tips.
Get enough sleep
With apologies to the folks who believe they can get by with 4 or 5 hours of sleep per night, you really need to be putting in much more quality facetime with your pillow – ideally between 7 and 9 hours per night, for adults, depending on your age, said Garfield.
“It’s not something that people regularly think of, and they’re quite surprised when I say, “Well, but if you don’t sleep well, that’s linked to all these nasty things, essentially,” she said.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on diet, having a healthy weight (and) exercising, trying not to get diabetes and all these all these things,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, yeah, but I can sleep 4 hours a night and I’m fine,’ and they don’t understand that actually the cumulative effects over time are really not good for you.”
Set a consistent sleep schedule
Go to sleep and wake up at the same time seven days a week, which can be difficult, Garfield said. This is important because it sets you up to get those 7 to 9 needed hours of sleep. “A lot of us don’t do it.”
Settle in for a short siesta
There’s no shame in taking a short nap. “A really obvious one from us would be to take a nap,” Garfield said. “Maybe up to around 30 minutes, because we know that that is quite beneficial for the brain. So, we literally take a break and try to fall asleep for a small amount of time.”
Although her team found a positive effect on the brain associated with short daytime napping, other studies have found napping is associated with negative outcomes, including a higher risk of high blood pressure and stroke, and being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Get some exercise
Sleep and napping aren’t the only ways to give your brain a break. Moving is also important.
“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that… going outside and taking a walk is really beneficial, particularly just maybe disconnecting from devices and being in touch with nature if you can,” said Garfield.
The exercise doesn’t have to be a walk in nature. The key is to detach from work and other activities that demand a lot of attention.
Do something that’s a little mindless
“I think that for me recommending things like meditation and mindfulness – they’re very obvious. But actually, a lot of people find this really difficult, me included,” Garfield said, noting that she can’t just switch off her brain.
She recommends other activities that require less brain power: Watching television (but nothing work-related, Garfield emphasized) or even going grocery shopping. (Just don’t use electronics within an hour of going to bed at night.
“It’s really important, again, to emphasize that these things are really individual, and it depends on the person,” she said.
We hope these five tips help you move closer to having a rested brain. Listen to the full episode here and find out the optimal time of day to nap, plus what sleep expert Victoria Garfield and Dr Sanjay Gupta like to do to rest their brains. And join us next week on the Chasing Life podcast when we explore the other end of the spectrum: the Caffeinated Brain with special guest, author Michael Pollan.
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CNN Audio’s Madeleine Thompson contributed to this report.