Sleep: It's Critical to Brain Functioning


For those of you about to take some leave you may be anticipating some long flights.  I can empathise! Recently I completed a round-the world-trip with a homeward journey flying from Quebec to Sydney via Montreal and LA.  The next few days were tough as my body tried to work out what time I was in and when it was time to sleep. 

Jet lag often brings those times of being unable to sleep even though the clock says its sleeping time.  Or times of being so tired in the middle of the day that we risk nodding off in the middle of a meeting.  And daylight saving changes can bring similar body clock confusion especially for children.

Sleep is critical to brain functioning. 

It is vital for good memory and learning processes.  We need our memory and learning ability to be at top capacity especially while working in another culture.

If you are travelling often or moving across time zones sleep habits become very important.  We can check these under three different headings – environmental, behavioural, and psychological. 

The environment of the bedroom itself is important. 

To encourage sleeping we need the right temperature, - the right level of bed-covers and clothing.  Although there is some suggestion of an ideal temperature different people will have different body temperature needs - so know what you need to sleep comfortably.  Plan how to adapt new sleeping environments to add warmth or cool down.

We sleep better in the dark. Our circadian rhythms that help us know when to sleep and wake are influenced by daylight.  It’s obvious but something we often ignore.  When we are in sync with our environment we will wake as sunrise approaches.  When we have changed time zones or are in a brighter environment we need all the help we can get.  Don’t underestimate the benefit of eye masks or block out curtains.  And if you are moving from place to place especially with children – bring your own block out.

We sleep better when the noise level is familiar.  That may sound a strange statement but I have worked with people who moved from bustling Asian cities to suburban Sydney and found the environment “too quiet” to sleep.  Personally I need a quieter environment and find keeping doors and windows closed helpful to block out traffic noises, nearby parties, or the early morning kookaburras in my Sydney back yard.  Peaceful background noise can be helpful as can ear plugs.

We sleep better in a distraction-free environment.  Phones can be switched to ‘Do Not Disturb’, TVs kept for the lounge room and partners that come to bed late or get up early can tiptoe.


Our behaviour patterns around sleep are also important.  

Like young children, adults also benefit from having a routine.  Going to sleep at a similar time and winding down our activity as we approach that time gives our body the messages we need that sleep time is coming.  This includes winding down our screen time. 

Most of our screens are lit by blue light so give our brains the same cues as daylight.  Turning screens off an hour before sleep time is helpful.  Resisting the temptation to check email, news or social media sites just before bed can pay dividends especially when our body clock is already confused.

Getting exercise some hours before bedtime is often recommended especially for those who need to interrupt the stress hormones that have been racing through their bodies due to work demands or anxieties.  Or for those whose bodies are out of sync with their new location.  Running or walking in the daylight will help our bodies get tuned into the local time zone and help our melatonin levels realign.

It often feels that alcohol will help with the need to relax and bring sleep.  But we know that alcohol works for a few hours and will most likely wear off and leave us awake at 3:00am.  Avoiding alcohol is good advice in times of sleep disturbance.

If you are lying there watching the clock at 3:00am, perhaps tossing and turning, it is often best to break the pattern and get up.  Move out of bed and the bedroom if possible. Get a drink, perhaps read a book.  In this way we reinforce the message that the bed is for sleeping. Returning to bed after 30 minutes will often make it easier to fall back to sleep.

Sometimes the distractions aren’t environmental or behavioural but are inside our own heads.  The thoughts or fears that echo in our heads mean we return to high alert and sleep seems far away. 

At this point we need to consider psychological strategies. 

Many people find skills such as mindfulness are helpful at this point and focusing on your breath or the sensations of your body supported on the bed can bring calm and peace.  Meditations from various religious traditions can also bring calm and peace as can music for some people.

Others find the process of writing down the issue that has woken them helpful.  Making lists of the things the mind is stuck on, or journaling about a difficult to solve problem can work to get an issue out of your head.  Putting things onto paper can be effective.

This process is one of accepting that you are struggling mentally / emotionally over an issue and acknowledging it. Sometimes it may help to name what you are feeling. Our brains can get stuck in a loop with anxiety.  Naming the anxiety can break that pattern.  

Sleep isn’t just for beauty.  It is critical to our brain functioning effectively.  It is vital to learning and to memory - both important functions when we are in a new cultural environment.  Don’t discount the basics of self care in your global journeys. 

This blog is an adaptation of one that was first published by Trisha Carter on