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Memory Retention and Sleep

Among the many other functions of sleep, memory formation and retention is perhaps the most important. The brain processes memories in two ways: through helping learn and focus and through helping with memory retention and recall. 1

The brain must go through a process that allows memories to be created and restored. First, acquisition or the actual learning or performing a new task must occur. Next, consolidation or making the memory stable in the brain occurs. Finally, recall or the ability to access a memory is the completion of the memory. Researchers feel that consolidation must happen while asleep. 1

Any college student will report at least one instance of pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam or finish a project, but how effective is this method? College students are among the most sleep deprived in the nation, presumably because newly established freedom, class and work load and social pressures.  Sleep deprivation on its own will reduce mental functioning, and, therefore, pulling an all-nighter is counterproductive. Many studies have been done all concluding that, while immediate recall of information is possible, retention is ultimately nonexistent. Staying up all night and “cramming for an exam will not be nearly as effective for students as the same amount of effort followed by a good night’s sleep.

The same intense neuron firing during REM sleep that is thought to produce dreams is also responsible for aiding in memory retention. This explains why we may dream of things that happen the previous day.2 REM sleep is vital to the memory making process as shown by PET (positron emission tomography) scans of the brain. There is a great deal more brain activity during REM sleep after a period of intensive learning such as college students studying for finals (those who decide to sleep, that is).

Sleep apnea is also thought to have a negative effect on memory retention because of the frequent disturbances in the sleep that occur during apnea episodes. 1 The obstruction of oxygen actually destroys tissue associated with retaining memories in the structures called mammillary bodies. 3 Patients with Alzheimer’s disease also show shrunken mammillary bodies. During an episode, the blood vessels in the brain constrict killing cells and tissue.

In addition to the list of health benefits gained from sleeping, memory retention is also aided by adequate sleep. Through sleeping and getting help with sleep breathing disorders such as sleep apnea, you can insure that you are remembering and retaining information.


1. WebMD—Sleep Deprivation Effects on Memory;

2. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

3. University of California at Los Angeles Newsroom—Study links sleep apnea to memory loss;

Are Sleeping Pills Safe?

Sleeping pills have possible negative effects on your body and your sleep. Those with insomnia or experiencing jet lag may find the use of sleeping pills an effective way to combat symptoms. Similar to alcohol, sleeping pills seem to aid in falling asleep and having a deep sleep when they actually produce a disrupted, fragmented sleep that can cause one to feel drowsy during the day. 1 It is important to figure out which medication, if any, would work best for your particular sleep situation.

Common Side Effects:

All medications have side effects, and sleeping pills’ side effects tend to happen more outside of sleep. Some side effects include:

  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Loss of balance
  • Appetite changes
  • Tremors
  • Constipation/Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Unusual dreams
  • Fatigue

Some side effects will be worse for certain individuals, especially those with existing disorders.


Sleeping pills have been proven to work well when used over a short period of time of no longer than six months; however, after an extended period of time, your body will begin to develop a dependence on the medication. 1 This dependence is found in addictive medications such as Benzodiazepines (the type of pill most often prescribed for insomnia). Benzodiazepines are typically anti-depressants and cause drowsiness.  2

Medication to help with sleep should never be taken when pregnant. This is because the same addictive qualities that cause adults to become dependent on medication can also happen to a child. No sleeping medication has been proven to be safe for unborn children.

Even after just a few nights using a sleeping pill the body begins to depend on the medication making it harder to attempt to sleep without it. Minor withdrawal symptoms such as bad dreams and worse insomnia than before use of the medication may occur just a few days after beginning use. 1

While some medications are being developed that claim to be non-habit forming, all medications used consistently will strengthen your tolerance to them requiring more of the medication for the same effects. 2 Any medication is excess is harmful to the body.


If suffering from a respiratory disorder such as asthma or sleep apnea, sleeping pills and accelerate the problem and make breathing more difficult. This is because some sleeping pills are respiratory depressants. Additionally, complications with sleep apnea and depressants such as sleeping pills and alcohol have been reported to cause the individual to be too medicated to realize they have stopped breathing so the body’s natural reaction that corrects the problem is subdued. Additionally, taking a sleeping pill regularly before determining the cause of the insomnia can make it difficult to every identify the true problem.


It is advised to always talk to your doctor before using any sort of sleeping pills. Some sleeping pills can have extremely negative side effects, and, because all individuals respond differently to different medications, it is extremely important to insure sleeping pills are the right choice for you. It is best to take less extreme measures when it comes to sleep such as making the bedroom more conducive to sleep or considering natural sleep remedies such as melatonin, herbal teas or aromatherapy. Sleeping pills should always be the last option. When using sleeping pills, it is necessary to read all directions and side effects so as to not unintentionally misuse the medication.


1. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

2. WebMD—Understanding the Side Effects of Sleeping Pills;

Natural Sleep Remedies

Natural Sleep Remedies

Natural remedies to help induce sleep have been used for thousands of years all over the world. Natural sleep remedies tend to be used in teas, supplements,  as well as forms of aromatherapy, and have been proven to help relax the mind and body.


Melatonin is the best know natural sleep remedy. Store bought supplements work by mimicking the natural melatonin that is produced by the pineal gland in the brain that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin lowers core temperature and causes individuals to feel drowsy. 1 Melatonin is popular amongst older individuals because, as we age, we produce less melatonin naturally. Taking a higher dosage of melatonin will not necessarily help you to sleep better because the smallest dosage sold is at least three times higher than that which exists naturally in the human body. 1


In the form of a root, valerian is widely used in both Europe and the United States. 2 Valerian also helps with anxiety and most individuals who use it have reported falling asleep quicker and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. Some users report feeling stimulated when using valerian while others experience headache. There is evidence that using valerian consistently over a short period of time may be more effective than using sporadically.


Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps to increase serotonin, which helps to regulate relaxation and sleep. Tryptophan is not sold as a supplement but can be easily incorporated into the diet. Certain foods contain tryptophan naturally and are said to be good bedtime snacks. Dairy foods like cheese and milk are often teamed with carbohydrates like crackers or grain cereal to help induce sleep.


Hops is the dried flower used in brewing beer that has been shown to aid in anxiety, excitability, insomnia and various other disorders. Hops can be used as tea alone or teamed with valerian to help induce sleep. Avoid using hops as a sleep remedy when pregnant or suffering from depression as they tend to make symptoms worse.


The flower of the plant catnip is often used as a tea to help with anxiety and insomnia. The same remedy that keeps your cat preoccupied for hours can help you get to sleep sooner. Catnip is said to work similarly to valerian and is often teamed with other natural sleep aids. Drinking catnip tea in excess can cause sickness and headache and should be avoided. 3


Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from roots, bark, leaves and seeds of plants. These oils are used through massaging into the skin, inhaling steam, or in bath water. 3 Lavender and chamomile are popular plants used in both aromatherapy, but can also be used in teas.

Caution: Many natural sleep aids come in teas that will sometimes contain caffeine. Teas can also be extremely sugary, so it is recommended to use honey as a sweetener because it contains tryptophan. Read the label on any tea you are considering buying as a sleep aid before you purchase as to not counteract any sleep aids with stimulants.

Natural sleep aids, while helpful, can prove harmful when used long term. Individuals should only turn to natural sleep aids once all other sleep methods such as making the room conducive to sleep and changing bedding, mattress and pillows have been attempted.


1. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.

2. Carskadon, Mary A. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993. 248

3. WebMD—Natural Sleep Aids and Remedies;

Top Ten Tips for Better Sleep

1. Establish a Bedtime Routine and Sleep-Wake Schedule

Establishing a bedtime routine will assist in making your body and mind aware that it is time to go to sleep. This can be established through taking a hot bath followed by a bedtime snack, listening to soothing music or reading a book. In order to establish your sleep-wake routine, you must exercise the same sleep-wake time everyday (even weekends). This adapts your body to understanding how much time it needs to be asleep and how much time it needs to be awake. 1 Make sure to establish your bedtime at a time that allows the optimal sleep time required that doesn’t hinder the next day’s schedule.

2. Create a tranquil sleep environment.

A tranquil sleep environment is vital to relaxing the mind and body to induce sleep. This can be done by dimming the lights in your home about an hour prior to bedtime. Buy soft sheets with a high thread count and, perhaps, a soothing color to not distract your mind. Security may also be a contributing factor to sleep troubles. Add an extra lock to the front door or an extra smoke alarm. A clean, well decorated bedroom can also help coax you to sleep by helping to avoid stress. Finally, lighting is extremely important when going to sleep. You can adjust the amount of light that comes in your room by hanging dark curtains or putting a towel under the crack in the door. Also, avoid watching television to go to sleep as it is too much for the mind to handle in order to relax and the lighting can be distracting from sleeping. 2

3. Limit your time in the bedroom.

The idea behind this is that you won’t associate negative or stressful things like working with the bedroom. Leave the bedroom for sleeping and your bedtime ritual, so you will have the ability to free your mind when wanting to go to sleep.

4. Value Sleep.

Sleep deprivation is a growing problem in the world today because people tend to not understand the importance sleep has. If one values the time they are spending relaxing and healing their bodies and minds through the sleep process, finding the time to do so will be easier.

5. Exercise regularly.

Engaging in exercise within three hours of intended bedtime or sporadically will reduce too much adrenaline and cause an individual to be too alert at bedtime. Body temperatures are increase a great deal during exercise and take around six hours to drop back to our normal body’s temperature. This drop in temperature can be very relaxing and help to induce sleep. 1

6. Pay attention to what you eat and drink.

Avoid consuming any substances that can harm your ability to sleep such as caffeine, alcohol and heavy foods that can cause acid reflux. While alcohol and a heavy meal will initially make you feel tired, they will ultimately cause a disruption in the sleep cycle. Additionally, cigarettes work as a stimulant and will disrupt your attempts to sleep as well as the many other negative risks associated with smoking.

7. Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.

Everyone has different preferences as far as softness and firmness of mattresses and pillows; however, all mattresses and pillows must provide adequate support for the entire body. Often times the problem with individuals’ sleep is that their mattress is worn out. Look for these signs to determine if it is time to buy a new mattress: discomfort when lying down and aches when waking up, visible signs such as stains, sagging or lumps, you can hear the box springs when lying down, the bed is over 10 years old or if you have allergies and have slept on the mattress for several years without a protective cover. 2 The correct pillow is equally important and can make the difference in your night’s sleep. Consider the position you sleep in to determine the thickness and firmness you require.

8. Don’t sleep with your pet.

Many pet owners today find it comforting to sleep with their pet or pets when it can be very disrupting to sleep. Their movements and noises can be very distracting when trying to go to sleep (especially if your dog likes to hog the bed like mine). Unless you absolutely need the pet sleeping near you, it is best to let them have their own bed.

9. Don’t bring stress into the bedroom.

Choosing to leave your phone or work papers out of the bedroom area allows you to unwind and forget about the day’s stresses. Additionally, leave any negative interaction out of the bedroom and do not watch the news to fall asleep as that will add stress to the concept of sleeping.

10. Consult a Sleep Specialist (if necessary)

If your sleep problems cannot be solved by the steps above, consider seeing a sleep specialist. You may have a sleep disorder if you are having chronic trouble sleeping or consistent problems.


1. The Sleep Foundation—Healthy Sleep Tips

2. Maas, Dr. James B., Megan L. Wherry, David J Axelrod, Barbara R. Hogan, and Jennifer A. Blumin. Power Sleep: The Revolutionary Program That Prepares Your Mind for Peak Performance. New York : Villard, 1998.