Here’s What an Extra 20 Minutes of Sleep Does to Your Brain

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The pandemic has been an extremely difficult time to live through, but one added benefit is that you might be getting more sleep.  And if you're fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you may find yourself sleeping in without having to worry about your commute. Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep expert and postdoctoral researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, explains that an extra 20 minutes is all it takes to make a difference for your overall health.

"Sleep is of the brain, by the brain, and for the brain," says Dr. Robbins, quoting sleep psychiatrist Allan Hobson. "If we all increased our sleep by 20 minutes, it would do a world of good for our mood, our health, and our productivity. We're infinitely more efficient and better able to accomplish work and deliver a higher quality work product when we're well-rested."

Experts In This Article
  • Rebecca Robbins, PhD, assistant professor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Data analyzed between March 16 and April 3 from the SleepScore app found that when compared to pre-pandemic data, people were going to bed later at night but they were also sleeping an average of 23 minutes later in the morning, gaining about seven extra minutes of sleep. Additionally, people spent an average of 10 extra minutes in bed, lounging about.

This is especially good news considering that one of the benefits of getting more sleep is stronger immunity. Dr. Robbins conducted research that examined a group of people who got the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night to those who got less (even just 30 minutes less), and exposed them to a norovirus.

"We see experimentally when we curtail sleep below the recommended seven hours that risk for viral infection goes up many fold—nearly four times higher among those who are sleeping poorly or getting insufficient sleep, compared to those who are getting good rest," says Dr. Robbins. "Isn't that interesting? [Our experiment used] the same virus, everything else was controlled for, and in the well-rested condition, you lose your risk for infection by a significant amount. So, good sleep along with social distancing and hand washing is one of the best things we can do to stay healthy through this pandemic." (To reiterate, Dr. Robbins's study used a norovirus, a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, not the virus that causes COVID-19.)

Not sleeping enough doesn't just affect you in the short term. Dr. Robbins explains experimental studies with animal models show that it can have long-term impacts on physical health.

"Each night we see sleep plays a role in clearing out all the debris from the day, and that debris is just a byproduct of our interacting with people, learning new things, making connections," says Dr. Robbins. "What's left over are things that need to be removed from the brain." Biomarkers for cognitive decline issues like Alzheimer's disease and dementia can accumulate when you don't get enough sleep to clear them out, she says.

In order to maintain the extra sleep you're getting once the world goes back to normal (whenever that is!), Dr. Robbins says there are a few things you should consider.

"One is just reflecting. You can do this either by journaling or maybe tracking your sleep with a mobile wearable device, and just reflecting on how much sleep you're getting and how you feel during the day," she says. "Just notice if you're getting a little bit more sleep, is it easier to get out of bed in the morning? Are you able to power through that afternoon dip in alertness?"

Next, create sustainable routines. "Are you extending your alarm clock, for instance, now that we're not spending time commuting? If you are looking at returning to work in the next couple of weeks, start going to bed a little bit earlier," says Dr. Robbins. "Instead of sleeping in those 20 minutes, try to add them to your bedtime routine and pull your bedtime up a little bit earlier." You can do this by establishing a bedtime routine so your body is ready for sleep, maybe taking a nice bath or reading a book for 15 minutes.

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