Myelin and Muscle Memory
Have you ever heard the term “muscle memory”? It’s a phrase we tend to use when talking about learning skills like riding a bike or playing an instrument. As we practice these activities repeatedly, our brains remember how to complete nuanced movements. We don’t have to think about each individual pedal or musical note. Another term for this is procedural memory because it’s really the result of instilling a process as a whole rather than as individual moments.
As it turns out, committing these skills to memory doesn’t happen in your muscles at all. Muscle memory happens in the brain, just like other forms of learning, and sleep and memory go hand in hand. The different stages of sleep boost your memory by repairing brain cells and fueling the production of myelin, a fatty tissue that coats and protects nerve cells that transport messages between your muscles and your brain.
Sleep and Memory
Research has shown that getting better quality shut eye improves myelin production and muscle memory. But which sleep stage does what, and how do you make sure you’re getting enough of it? We explain the connection between sleep and memory, so you and your partner get the most out of each visit to dreamland.
What is myelin and what does it do?
Myelin is a fatty tissue that creates a protective sheath around nerve cells in the central nervous system. Specifically, myelin functions like a sleeve around the long part of the cell called the axon. As your brain relays information to the rest of your body, myelin helps to speed up the electrical impulses that “fire off” this information via nerve cells. Think of it as sending messages from your brain in a padded priority envelope. It’s more likely to arrive on time and in the right place without the letter getting damaged in the process.
When your body and your brain are able to communicate seamlessly, you can learn and retain new motor skills. This is especially relevant to people with multiple sclerosis (MS) because MS causes the immune system to attack myelin and nerve cells. That’s why, over time, MS makes it difficult to control muscle movements and degrades procedural memory (i.e., muscle memory).
How does sleep affect muscle memory?
Sleep is essential to improving and maintaining muscle memory at multiple stages. Light REM sleep and deep, non-REM sleep states 3 and 4—sometimes labeled N3—are both responsible for giving your nervous system what it needs to develop lasting muscle memory:
- Sleep affects oligodendrocytes, the genes that produce myelin. Research on this topic is fairly new, and recent studies have found that sleep works like a light switch that activates oligodendrocytes, while sleep deprivation reduces their activity.
- Sleep grows and repairs tissues in the body and replenishes energy to the brain. This process usually takes place during non-REM sleep stages while you are sleeping deeply.
- REM sleep consolidates procedural learning and commits skills to muscle memory. Lack of sleep also makes it harder to focus and perform fine motor skills, which in turn makes them harder to learn and retain, according to sleep experts at Harvard.
How To Improve Muscle Memory with Sleep
Improving muscle memory with better sleep is a lot like riding a bike—it takes practice and repetition. Don’t let yourself suffer sleep deprivation during the week and try to gain the benefits by sleeping late each weekend. If you want to boost your work performance or improve daily movements, you’ve got to be consistent with healthy sleep habits.
- Get a Full Night’s Sleep
Light and deep sleep are both needed to produce myelin and repair nerve tissue. That means you need to sleep through the night. Pulling all-nighters and taking cat naps won’t cut it when you want to learn and repeat skills day after day. If you start to lose sleep, you’ll find yourself at risk of more accidents and injuries at work as your muscle memory lapses.
- Sleep After You Learn Something New
The brain consolidates during REM sleep, which takes place about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. With that in mind, Psychology Today contributor Richard E. Cytowic M.D. recommends that students go to bed early and get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. So, when you want to store a new skill or process in your muscle memory, pat yourself on the back and call it a night. Doctor’s orders!
- Avoid Sleep Disruptions
At this point, you and your partner might be thinking, “We’d love to go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep, but how?” If your bedroom is full of disruptions, even the best intentions won’t result in a good night’s sleep, let alone improved myelin production. Turn your room into a restful sleep environment by removing electronic devices that emit blue light, reduce loud noises and switch to warm lighting to help your body prepare for sleep.
- Treat Other Sleep Problems Together
Sharing a bed can introduce sleep disruptions on its own. In fact, 38 percent of people have reported that their partner’s sleep disorder negatively affects their sleep. If you or your partner has a sleep condition, such as snoring or chronic insomnia, you probably both have trouble sleeping soundly. An adjustable isense mattress with dual Comfort Control™ gives you and your partner independent control of your support settings to stop snoring and alleviate other sleep problems.
Whether you’ve picked up a new hobby or you want to boost your muscle memory and fine motor skills at work, start with a great night’s sleep. By practicing healthy habits as a couple, you’ll reap the benefits myelin-boosting sleep and a refreshed central nervous to help you both learn every day.