Marc Milstein, Ph.D., a scientist and researcher on health and happiness, will be a keynote speaker at RISE West 2020 in September. In this article, RISE talks to Milstein about his upcoming presentation and how American adults can get a better night’s sleep amid worries of COVID-19.

If you have been tossing and turning at night since March, you aren’t alone. The shelter-in-place orders and physical distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on the quality of people’s sleep, says Milstein, pictured.

“Some people get more sleep, but the quality is down and it’s important to talk about. Sleep isn’t just rest. Sleep is a time when we consolidate our memory and make our memories stronger. It’s also a time when we cleanse our brains and get rid of toxins and waste,” he says.

The problem: It’s hard to manage stress if we don’t get a good night’s sleep and if we are stressed, it’s hard to sleep. “It’s a vicious cycle and it plays a part in so many aspects of our health. But there are very actionable, simple things people can do each day that really do help you get good sleep. Things in the morning and things right before bed,” he says.

Milstein will discuss many of these strategies during his keynote presentation at 10:10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 11, the second day of the virtual event, RISE West 2020. But he did share one tip in advance of the presentation:

In the hour prior to going to bed, get a pen and paper and write down all the things on your to-do list for the next day and anything that is worrying you.

Research shows that this simple action allows people to get a significantly better night’s sleep and enter deeper stages of sleep. Why? Once we write it down, our brains register that the information is stored somewhere safe, Milstein says, so they won’t wake us up at 2 a.m. to remind us to think about it. “It’s a very simple, but effective trick,” he says.

One trap that people fall into is thinking that sleep is something to prepare for a few minutes before bed. Our world is so busy that we always want to do one more thing before calling it a night, he says, especially now when most of us are working from home and no longer have transitions to separate our business demands from our personal life. However, he says the hour before bed should be a transition, one that is calming and relaxing, perhaps involving soft music, light stretching, and mindfulness.

“One way to think about it is if you drove your car 80 miles per hour on the freeway and you pull into the garage at the same speed with no transition. That would be a problem…There has to be time set aside for a slowdown transition to bed,” he says.

Another benefit: by optimizing sleep and managing stress, Milstein says that people can improve their overall mental health, avoid burnout, and lower their risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“People think that may be a long time away and developing dementia or Alzheimer’s is out of their control…but all of the studies in the last year have found there are things we can do to significantly lower our risk. We are talking about lowering risk by 30 to 60 percent based on lifestyle factors,” he says. “On that list is optimizing sleep, not by the number of hours but how effective that sleep is… So, I will be talking about the surprising things we can start doing now to protect our brains day to day and years from now.”

Milstein will present the opening keynote, Optimize Your Brain: Sleep Better, Manage Stress, Boost Your Memory & Protect Your Mental Health, on Friday, Sept. 11 at RISE West 2020. Click here to see the full agenda, list of speakers, special virtual pricing, and how to register.