How better sleep can help you prevent Alzheimer’s
A new study shows that lack of sleep helps set the stage for Alzheimer’s. Of course, Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease, with a strong genetic component. But, thanks to some new studies, we now know there’s no doubt—if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re at much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s, along with other types of dementia. But, with just a little bit of attention to your sleep patterns, you can help keep these brain diseases at bay.
Sleep Cleans Your Brain
The link between sleep and brain disorders has long been known, but not well understood. For a long time, researchers thought that Alzheimer’s sufferers had poor sleep habits because the disease attacked the sleep centers of the brain.
It turns out, the truth may be the reverse.
In 2009, researchers discovered that amyloid plaques—the sticky gunk that accumulates in the brain, especially in Alzheimer’s sufferers—built up much faster in animals that weren’t getting enough shut-eye.
Then, in 2013, another group found out why.
When you sleep, your brain actually shrinks a little bit. And when that happens, the clear, clean liquid that normally occupies the space between your brain and your skull—the cerebrospinal fluid—comes into your brain, and “washes” it.
Every night, when you sleep—and especially when you enter deep sleep—your brain literally gives itself a bath. And when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain, in effect, stays “dirty.”
That’s bad in two ways. First, when you don’t wash out the amyloid plaques regularly, they can build up, leading to dementia.
And second, even without long-term buildup, the presence of amyloid plaques can damage parts of your brain.
And if you’re wondering if this matters to you even if you don’t have a history of Alzheimer’s in your family, it does. Amyloid plaque is a natural byproduct of thought—we all get it.
Families that are more prone to Alzheimer’s may naturally produce more amyloid plaque. Or they may naturally have poorer sleep patterns or an inefficient brain-wash.
But even if you don’t have a history of Alzheimer’s or dementia in your family, lack of sleep will lead to more amyloid plaque. And that will lead to brain problems, over time.
Luckily, there’s an easy solution. Get more sleep!
How To Put Dementia To Rest
The healthiest rest is natural, uninterrupted rest.
To that end, you should create the perfect sleeping environment for yourself.
That means keeping your bed just for sleep. Don’t work there, don’t eat there, and certainly don’t watch TV there.
Just sleep there. We are Pavlovian creatures, and if your bed is only used for sleep, your body will soon come to feel sleepy just by being around it. Use that to your advantage.
Although, speaking of TVs, you should avoid all screens within two hours of sleep.
Our electronic devices emit blue light. And blue light is an indicator of daylight to your brain. It even has a receptor just tuned to that task—when it sees blue light, it suppresses sleepy hormones, and promotes wakeful ones.
So get those screens out of there! Make this your reading time instead (E-ink electronic book readers don’t have blue light, so they’re fine as well).
If, for whatever reason, you just can’t avoid using your computer or phone at the end of the day, at least have a blue light filter turned on.
These programs—which are sometimes built into devices, like most of those in the Apple ecosystem—filter blue light out of your screens as the evening wears on. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than getting a full dose of blue light before bed.
I also recommend turning off all electronic devices in your bedroom. These devices create all sorts of electromagnetic fields, which are poorly understood—but which some studies show interfere with sleep.
Finally, make sure you have blackout curtains, and a light-sealed room for bed. There’s no better way to promote shut-eye than to block out all forms of light—be they from a phone or a streetlight.
If you’ve never slept in a totally dark room before, you’ll be amazed how restful they are.
If the above sleep hygiene techniques don’t do the trick, don’t fret. I’ve got some more advanced methods for you.
One is calm, relaxing breathing. You can do this anytime, but right before bed it does a great job of quieting your mind, ceasing internal chatter, and setting you up for a good night’s rest.
You can practice any of hundreds of techniques, though one of the easiest is, believe it or not, a weight loss device called the Breathslim. It’s focused on exhaling carbon dioxide, as a way to lose extra pounds. But I find it’s remarkably good at teaching relaxed breathing techniques for people of all skill levels and experience.
You can also take healthy, natural supplements. Magnesium does a great job of promoting sleep—and the best way to take it is through the skin, with an Epsom salt bath, itself a very relaxing habit.
Melatonin is also a powerful sleep aid. Dosage is highly variable—as little as two-tenths of a milligram can work, while other people need up to five milligrams.
You won’t get into major trouble if you take too much—but overdoing melatonin can cause headaches and nausea. Not what you want for a good night’s rest. So start with .5 – 1 milligram, and increase your dosage as needed over time.
I personally take a supplement which contains 5-HTP and l-theanine, both are powerful sleep aids. They are precursors to melatonin and serotonin, and provide an easy, safe way to get the good, natural sleep hormones running through your body.
A 200 mg dose of l-theanine will help put you right, and 100 mg of 5-HTP is enough.
Whatever you do, make more powerful sleep aids—like prescription drugs—a last resort, only to be used with the supervision of a doctor, if all else fails.
Not only do those drugs wreak all sorts of havoc in your body, but there’s good evidence that they don’t promote the deep sleep that’s so important for cleaning out your brain.
And remember, that’s what this is all about. A healthy sleep schedule will lead to frequent baths for your brain, washing away the amyloid plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
If all the other benefits of sleep weren’t apparent enough, hopefully this one will push you over the top. Because, as we learn over and over, there truly is no more important activity than a good night’s rest.
- Hamilton, Jon. Lack of Deep Sleep May Set the Stage for Alzheimer’s. NPR. Published Jan 4, 2016. Accessed Jan 27, 2017.
- Frazier, Vidya. Having Trouble Sleeping? You May Be Suffering From An EMF Health Effect. Earth Calm. Published Sep 10, 2013. Accessed Jan 29, 2017.
- How Much Melatonin Should You Really Be Taking? Sleep.org. Accessed Jan 29, 2017.
Last Updated: November 19, 2019
Originally Published: February 20, 2017