By Dr. Mercola
Could poor sleeping habits cause brain damage and even accelerate onset of Alzheimer's disease? According to recent research, the answer is yes on both accounts.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Sigrid Veasey, associate professor of Medicine and a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, this is the first time they've been able to show that sleep loss actually results in the loss of neurons.
A second study also suggests that if you sleep poorly, you're at increased risk for earlier onset of severe dementia.
Sleep Loss Linked to ‘Massive Brain Damage'
The first study in question, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that sleep is necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain. Wakefulness is associated with mitochondrial stress, and without sufficient sleep, neuron degeneration sets in.
The research also showed that catching up on “sleep debt” on the weekend will not prevent this damage. To reach their conclusion, the researchers submitted mice to an irregular sleep schedule similar to that of shift workers.
Inconsistent, intermittent sleep resulted in a remarkably considerable, and irreversible, brain damage—the mice actually lost 25 percent of the neurons located in their locus coeruleus, a nucleus in the brainstem associated with arousal, wakefulness, and certain cognitive processes. As reported by Time magazine:
“The scientists believe that when the mice slept inconsistently, their newer cells would create more sirtuin type 3, a protein meant to energize and protect the mice. But after several days of missing sleep, as a shift worker might, the protein creation fell off and cells began to die off at a faster pace.”
Elderly Women Are Twice as Likely to Develop Alzheimer's Than Breast Cancer
Being aware of the links between sleep and Alzheimer's onset may be particularly important for women, as they are at greatest risk for the disease. According to the 2014 Facts and Figures report issued by the Alzheimer's Association, women over the age or 60 have a one-in-six chance of developing Alzheimer's—nearly double the risk of men, who have a one-in-11 chance. Even more disturbing, a woman's chance of developing Alzheimer's is twice as great as her risk of developing breast cancer!
Since there's no cure, and no truly effective treatments, taking steps to prevent Alzheimer's becomes paramount. And it seems clear that sleeping properly is one important factor to take into consideration. For more information about Alzheimer's prevention, please see my previous article “How to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease—A Neurologist Speaks Out.”
Other Helpful Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Besides maintaining a natural circadian rhythm, there are a number of additional ways to help improve your sleep if you're still having trouble. Below are half a dozen of my top guidelines for promoting good sleep. For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article “33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep.”
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer at night—or at least about an hour or so before going to bed—as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on your sleep. TV and computer screens emit blue light, similar to daylight. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion. Under normal circumstances, your brain starts secreting melatonin during something called dim light melatonin onset. If the light in your environment doesn't dim, because of multiple artificial light sources, melatonin won't be released and this affects sleep timing, quantity, and quality.
- Sleep in darkness. Remember, light can disrupt your internal clock and your pineal gland's production of melatonin. Refrain from using night-lights, cover up your clock radio, cover your windows — I recommend using blackout shades or drapes, or use an eye mask—and don't turn on a light if you have to go to the bathroom at night. You don't need to sleep in complete darkness. The intensity of light needs to be at a certain level (different levels depending on the spectrum) to suppress melatonin production. Complete darkness is probably best however.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their bedrooms too warm. A reduction in core body temperature is a part of the sleep-initiation and sleep maintenance process. A room temperature that is too warm or too cool can prevent your core temperature from lowering to its ideal place for good sleep. Aim to keep your bedroom temperature between 60 to 68 degrees, and identify the best room temperature for you through trial and error.
- Take a hot bath or shower 30 min before bedtime. The hot bath increases your core body temperature, opening up the blood vessels in your limbs. When you get out of the bath, heat can leave your body easily (if the room temperature is cool), abruptly dropping your core body temperature, making you drowsy and ready for great sleep.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to shut down all power in your house.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. This serves at least two functions. First, it can be stressful to see the time when you can't fall asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night. Secondly, the glow from a clock radio can be enough to suppress melatonin production and interfere with your sleep. Cell phones, cordless phones and their charging stations should ideally be kept three rooms away from your bedroom to prevent harmful EMF's.
Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently. Second, during the night, various sleep cycles play a role in “consolidating” memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day.
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