Need a brain boost? Try the most accessible cognitive enhancer

In this article, I share the most accessible cognitive enhancer that gives you a boost, doesn’t require money, and won’t harm your health.

cognitive enhancer for women
(c) Can Stock Photo, Inc. / Friedamischke

I’ve been obsessed with my children’s sleep since my older daughter was born. Of course, all new parents suffer from sleep deprivation. My daughter’s sleep habits tormented my spouse and me into her early school years. No matter what we tried, she woke up at 4:45 a.m. every morning. Attempts to vary her sleep schedule—by changing the timing and duration of her naps, bedtimes, etc.—were fruitless. Even when we visited my parents in Korea, the 13-hour time difference didn’t change her early wake-up time.

When both of my girls started middle school, battles around sleep evolved. As their workload for school increased, so did their use of technology. It was challenging to have them get enough sleep. Getting them to avoid blue screens two hours before bedtime was impossible.

Despite being my children’s number 1 sleep advocate, I admit I was negligent about my own sleep and sometimes still am. Early readers of my newsletter may remember my bouts of “momsomnia.” I will still fall asleep on the couch after dinner. When I go to bed around 11 pm, I lay awake thinking of all the things I should have done or need to do. Sometimes, I’ll get out of bed, to do some work and go to bed when I get tired around 2 am. The next day, I’ll be a caffeinated zombie, kicking myself for not practicing better sleep hygiene.

I have a hunch, I’m not alone. When we have so much on our plate or when so many people rely on us, it’s hard not to let go of good sleep habits. But, it is precisely when we feel overloaded, we need reminders of why sleep is so important.

Cognitive losses from sleep deprivation

Here is what you can lose when you don’t have good sleep:

You waste time

People who don’t get sufficient sleep are more likely to …

  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Make poor decisions
  • Come up with fewer original ideas
  • Stick with old strategies that are no longer effective
  • Engage in riskier behavior
  • Make choices that violate their moral code

In other words, you are more likely to end up needing to redo work and fix avoidable mistakes. (You can read about how insufficient sleep can affect businesses and organizations in this HBR article.)

You harm our health and our appearance

Sleep deprivation is associated with chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and obesity. Everyone knows that a lack of sleep results in bags under the eyes, but apparently it also causes wrinkles!

You turn into someone you don’t want to be

I know I end up yelling more when I don’t sleep enough. I used to think this was because I was just cranky. What I didn’t know was that sleep deprivation distorts emotions enough to affect behavior.

According to Penelope Lewis, “Sleep-deprived people are more easily frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, uncaring, and self-absorbed than they would be if they were properly rested.”

Sleep is the most accessible cognitive enhancer

In addition to helping you save time, lift your moods, enhance your health and appearance, and become better versions of yourself, sleep boosts your brain.

The amazing thing about your brain is that it continues to do important work while you sleep.

When your computer starts to act strange or slow, what’s the first thing you do? You probably restart it. Similarly, sleep is a cognitive enhancer because it refreshes the brain. It helps you remember and learn what’s important, dumping the unnecessary information that weighs you down.

Moreover, during REM sleep, the brain free-associates. It helps you connect new memories with old ones, or connect disparate ideas that can help solve problems or find new creative solutions.

Your turn

What is one tiny action step you can take to improve your sleep? What will you try? I’d love to know.

For more information on sleep, check out my book note on The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest.

This is an updated version of an older post from August 2015.