Imagine being able to boost your immune system, improve your memory and even ward off devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s – all while lying flat on your back.
You know how important sleep is to your memory and your health. And we’ve all experienced the brain fog after a rough night tossing and turning in bed.
But researchers are now claiming that too many sleepless nights could cause dangerous toxins to accumulate in your brain, triggering inflammation, dementia and even Alzheimer’s. And just a few simple sleep tricks could be all it takes to keep your brain ‘clean’ from these poisons and razor sharp in your golden years.
Poor sleep linked to brain disease
As we age, the ability to remember becomes more of a challenge. And diseases such as Alzheimer’s – which frequently starts with the forgetting of names, facts and basic orientation – may have an overlooked connection to sleep. Much of our ability to remember things depends on good quality sleep – and that means that while a lack of sleep doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s, it could make it show up decades earlier.
We also know from current research that good sleep is critical for proper immune system function. T cells (the large family of lymphocytes that form the cornerstone of our immune response) plummet when we’re sleep deprived. Even healthy people with robust immune systems experience a loss of immune system function when they don’t get enough good quality sleep. This can lead to colds and flu, an inability to ward off chronic conditions such as shingles and may even make us less able to fight off cancer cells.
In addition to its effects on lymphocytes and other white blood cells, sleep deprivation raises the level of inflammatory messengers in your body. Several studies have shown that sleep deprived people have higher levels of inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6 (interleukin-6) and inflammatory markers such as CRP (C-reactive protein). And unchecked, this inflammation can have dire health consequences contributing to heart disease, cancer and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Get more shut-eye for a sparkling clean brain
But as important as memories and immune function are, we’re just beginning to understand the critical function sleep plays in maintaining our health. Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a sleep biologist who runs the sleep laboratory at the University of Rochester in the US, has been doing exciting research into the role of sleep in proper brain function. And in time her team uncovered a tantalising new idea: Sleep is your body’s way of cleansing your brain.
Our bodies have a built-in method for cleaning out toxins called the lymphatic system. Lymph, a colourless fluid that contains white blood cells, courses throughout our bodies using an intricate system of lymph channels. The lymph weaves between cells carrying macrophages and other immune cells that can move into body tissues engulfing debris and the toxic products of metabolism.
But cleansing lymph cells are unable to reach the brain, which is encased behind a protective blood-brain barrier. Your brain uses an incredible 20 per cent of your body’s total energy to perform its critical functions, and all of that energy expenditure naturally creates a lot of waste products. Some of those waste products, like tau protein and beta-amyloid plaques, can be toxic to your brain, leading to Alzheimer’s and similar dementias if they aren’t removed.
When we’re awake, our brains are too busy and active to be heavily involved in cleansing. We do have ‘clean-up’ units called glial cells whose job it is to move through the fluid spaces of our brains during the day. But the glial cells only clean up the surfaces of the brain while we’re awake. That’s where Dr. Nedergaard’s discovery, derived from mouse studies, comes in.
A ‘dirty brain’ is linked to Alzheimer’s
Tagging markers were injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of mice and tracked. They were found to follow specific pathways through the brain and out again. When the mice were asleep, however, the fluid exchange increased by 20 times!
It turns out that while we sleep our brain cells actually shrink. This shrinkage allows the channels between the cells to swell and fill up with cerebrospinal fluid, providing a medium for the cleansing glial cells to move in and around each cell, removing any debris they discover.
The researchers measured a 60 per cent increase in the flow through the interstitial fluid, the channels around and between the brain cells which were inactive when the brain was busy in activities of wakefulness. This finding was so shocking that at first the researchers thought they must have calculated wrong. But on repetition it became obvious that the sleeping brains were clearing out twice as much waste as the waking brains. And much of that waste was identified by the researchers as beta-amyloid, the toxic substance linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Much like the white blood cells found in lymph, the glial cells move throughout the brain gobbling up waste products and washing them through the channels of the cerebrospinal fluid. Dr. Nedergaard coined the term ‘glymphatic system’ to describe the brain’s cleansing process that’s remarkably similar to the lymphatic system of the rest of the body. Similar studies in dogs, goats and baboons have confirmed the presence of this sleep-induced cleansing system, and human studies are being planned.
Get control of this hidden condition for better sleep
While it’s clear that adequate sleep plays a critical role in protecting us from the build-up of damaging dementia-linked toxins, frighteningly, millions of us are currently suffering from insomnia and other sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea.
Sleep apnoea is a condition that causes you to literally stop breathing repeatedly throughout the night for several seconds at a time. Sleep apnoea sufferers may snore loudly or simply have periods of silence followed by a gasping for air, and they’re often unaware they even have the condition until a spouse or roommate brings it to their attention. Extreme fatigue and unexplained high blood pressure are other signs of sleep apnoea and either, or both, could cause your doctor to suspect you have the condition.
A sleep apnoea diagnosis is made by scheduling a ‘sleep study’, during which you spend a night in a sleep lab attached to electrodes that monitor your oxygen level and sleep rhythms.
Sleep apnoea is usually caused by one of three things:
- extra fatty tissue in the adenoids or back of the throat,
- too much weight in the neck and facial areas, or 3. swelling of the adenoids and sinuses.
Losing weight can often help reverse the condition for many sufferers. Since allergies can be responsible for sinus and adenoid swelling, treating allergies can help relieve apnoea as well. And in the most extreme cases surgery may be required.
CPAP and BiPAP machines that push air through the obstructions at night are often prescribed as well. These machines have become less obtrusive in recent years, but they still aren’t tolerable for many. As a first step I often have my own patients try a small non-invasive devise that slides into the nostrils. Provent therapy (www.proventtherapy.com) can help provide just enough of an increase in breathing passages to improve sleep for some sufferers.
Six shut-eye tricks to try
Insomnia, trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep (or both), is another common sleep problem. But today I’m going to reveal my six secret tricks for beating insomnia and finally getting some quality shuteye.
Shut-eye trick #1: Try to go to bed at the same time each night. We are creatures of habit, and our bodies can essentially be trained to begin winding down and preparing for sleep at a specific time if we stick to the same routine.
Shut-eye trick #2: Try elevating the foot of your bed a few inches. Believe it or not, there are multiple reports and some scientific data suggesting that elevating the foot of the bed increases circulation into the brain at night.
Shut-eye trick #3: Turn off any blue light screens in the room, including tablets, laptops, phones and computer screens at least an hour before bed. Studies show that these devices send our brains mixed messages if we use them while we’re trying to settle down for sleep.
Shut-eye trick #4: Don’t do work, or any type of heavy problem solving, in bed. Choose another room in the house to be the room for cerebral activity, and leave your bedroom for intimacy and sleep ONLY.
Shut-eye trick #5: Try taking a warm bath before bedtime. Epsom salts, containing the valuable sedating mineral magnesium, will assist in the relaxation process.
Shut-eye trick #6: If waking up during the night is your main issue, try eating a very light snack before bedtime. Low blood sugar is one of the most common causes (next to frequent urination) of waking in the middle of the night. A couple of almonds, a few spoons of full-fat yoghurt or even a bit of almond butter on a cracker can frequently do the trick.
Skip the sleep drugs and go natural instead
Of course, if you still need a little extra help, Big Pharma will be more than happy to supply you with pills to drug you to sleep. But taking them can be disastrous. Many of these heavy duty medications are addictive, and some can even be life-threatening. In addition, studies show that users often get very little extra quality sleep using them.
Instead of putting yourself at risk with questionable drugs, I suggest you try some safe alternatives. My favourite natural sleep remedies include: valerian, skullcap, magnesium, melatonin (available on prescription only in the UK), 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) and/or L-Tryptophan, Jamaican boxwood, L-Theanine, GABA and GABA-promoting nutrients, ghosphatidylserine, and curcumin.
One of these natural sleep remedies, or a combination of them, could be the key to finally getting the quality sleep you need to stay healthy and hold on to your precious memories.
If you find you’re still having trouble sleeping I suggest you make an appointment to see an integrative medicine doctor who can help get to the bottom of your sleep problems, and personalise a plan to get you the critical shut-eye you need. Pleasant dreams!
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 9, Issue 8, August 2015