• Studies Show Sleep Loss May Cause Brain Damage and Accelerate Alzheimer’s

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    It may seem obvious that Sleep is beneficial. We know that going without sleep for too long makes us feel terrible, and that getting a good night's sleep can make us feel ready to take on the world.



    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.”

    Chronic Sleep Disruption May Trigger Alzheimer's Onset

    In a similar vein, research published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging suggests that people with chronic sleep problems may develop Alzheimer's disease sooner than those who sleep well. According to lead author Domenico Praticò, professor of pharmacology and microbiology/immunology in the university's School of Medicine: 

    “The big biological question that we tried to address in this study is whether sleep disturbance is a risk factor to develop Alzheimer's or is it something that manifests with the disease.”

    Using mice bred to develop Alzheimer's, the researchers exposed one group of mice to 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, while another group was exposed to 20 hours of light and only four hours of darkness. This lack of darkness significantly reduced the amount of time the mice slept.

    At the end of the eight-week long study, the mice that slept less were found to have significantly poorer memory. Their ability to learn new things was also impaired—despite the fact that the two groups of mice had about the same amount of amyloid plaque (a hallmark of Alzheimer's) in their brains. According to Dr. Praticò:

    “[W]e did observe that the sleep disturbance group had a significant increase in the amount of tau protein that became phosphorylated and formed the tangles inside the brain's neuronal cells…

    Because of the tau's abnormal phosphorylation, the sleep-deprived mice had a huge disruption of this synaptic connection. This disruption will eventually impair the brain's ability for learning, forming new memory and other cognitive functions, and contributes to Alzheimer's disease.”

    Since both groups of mice were bred to develop Alzheimer's but the sleep deprived group developed these dementia-related problems sooner than the others, the researchers believe that poor sleep acts as a trigger of pathological processes that accelerate the disease. The researchers concluded that “chronic sleep disturbance is an environmental risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.”

    Previous research, published in the journal Science, has also revealed your brain removes toxic waste during sleep through what has been dubbed “the glymphatic system.”  This system ramps up its activity during sleep, thereby allowing your brain to clear out toxins, including harmful proteins linked to brain disorders such as Alzheimer's.

    By pumping cerebral spinal fluid through your brain's tissues, the glymphatic system flushes the waste, from your brain, back into your body's circulatory system. From there, the waste eventually reaches your liver, where it's ultimately eliminated. So it's quite likely that sleep affects your brain function and your risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's in more ways than one.

    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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

    photo by: en.wikipedia.org

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