Sleep plays a critical role in health; for example, it is directly linked to better moods, improved performance during workouts, and healthier food choices. And, as it turns out, sleep also plays a major role in cognitive function—and, more specifically, memory.

Getting enough high-quality Zzz’s is essential for keeping your memory sharp. But how, exactly, does sleep impact memory, and what steps can you take to ensure your sleep routine is supporting your memory?

What part does sleep play in memory?

In order to understand how sleep impacts memory, you need to understand that not all memories are created equal—more specifically, short-term and long-term memories. “When we learn new information, it gets stored as a short-term memory in the area of the brain called the hippocampus,” says Dr. Chelsie Rohrscheib, neuroscientist and head sleep expert at Wesper. “If the memory is never transferred to the long-term storage centers of our brain—the cortex—that memory will be lost.”

And when does that memory transfer happen? You guessed it—while you’re asleep. “The transfer of short-term memories to long-term memories occurs during the REM stage of sleep,” says Rohrscheib. 

So, if you’re not getting enough high-quality sleep, your brain won’t be able to turn your short-term memories into long-term memories, leading to a poorer memory overall.

How can you use sleep to support better memory?

There’s no way around it. If you want to support better memory, you need to prioritize high-quality sleep, and getting plenty of it.

“Ensuring that you get 7-9 hours of good quality sleep per night will allow your brain enough time in REM sleep to store long-term memories,” says Rohrscheib. “Waking up frequently during the night, not getting enough hours of sleep, or having a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia will eventually lead to learning and memory deficits.”

So, how do you ensure that you’re getting enough sleep to keep your memory sharp? Rohrscheib suggests practicing good sleep hygiene (for example, keeping a strict sleep schedule, cutting out caffeine 8 hours before bedtime, and avoiding screens two hours before you’re ready to go to sleep). She also recommends giving yourself plenty of time to fall asleep and get the rest you need—which often means getting into bed earlier in the evening.

“Adults need to ensure they spend enough time in bed to actually get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night,” says Rohrscheib. “If you only allow yourself 7 hours in bed, it’s very unlikely you’re getting enough sleep.”

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