Defeating Alzheimer’s disease is a complicated puzzle, but scientists have recently cracked one more piece of the AD code. And it might be one of the easiest ways ever to protect yourself from memory loss and dementia.
Scientists have always known that sleep is an essential function of the human body, necessary for everything from tissue building to reducing inflammation.
Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin have found sleep can actually prevent and fight the protein build-up – those famous brain plaques — known to cause Alzheimer’s. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
It all starts with myelin.
Myelin is the fatty sheath that coats the axons of neurons. Think of it as the insulation around an electrical wire. It not only protects the wire from getting damaged or chewed away by mice, it also helps the electricity flow faster without interruption.
Cells called oligodendrocytes are responsible for repairing myelin in damaged brain cells and growing new myelin around healthy cells as old myelin naturally degrades. But that regrowth process (or myelination) starts to slow down around age 50. Amyloid proteins then start to slowly build up between neurons. Those proteins eventually turn into the plaques that are the main physical sign of Alzheimer’s. (1)
Dr. Chiara Cirelli and her team found that sleep makes a significant difference in every part of this protective process. In fact, their study showed not just one, but three ways sleep significantly changes the brain before and during onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep’s three-pronged attack on toxic plaque
Dr. Cirelli’s study showed the genes that create oligodendrocytes are turned on during sleep. Her team compared the gene activity in mice that slept regularly and in those that were kept awake. The activity was much higher in those that slept, making their myelin production higher as well.
Second, the study noted that oligodendrocyte production doubles specifically during REM sleep, when your brain is actually very active.
Finally, the researchers found that the mice that were forced to stay awake had higher expression of those genes responsible for cell death and cellular stress response.
To sum up, your myelin production switches on during sleep… doubles during REM sleep… and prevents cell stress and even cell death. When myelin production increases, it leaves less room for plaque build-up and maintains lightning-fast cognitive processing. Three great reasons to get a good night’s sleep! (2)
“If I could sleep… I would!”
If you’re thinking it’s been years since you’ve had quality sleep—let alone dream-sleep—it’s time to take action. It’s true that older people sleep less, but it’snot because you need less sleep. An argument could be made that as we age, we need more sleep to keep up with the damage control.
However, sleeping pills are not the answer. Studies have demonstrated that the most common brands of sleeping pills do nothing more than make you fall asleep a few minutes faster. They do not improve the depth or quality of your sleep.
Some natural remedies include supplementing with GABA (an important neurotransmitter) to calm the brain, drinking chamomile tea, and taking calcium supplements before bed. Another natural tip is to create a sleep-friendly bedroom with white noise, pure darkness, and cool temperatures. These are all good ideas and easy to put into action.
You want to keep your bedroom as dark as possible (wear a blindfold if you must) and avoid turning on lights in the middle of the night. If you can’t avoid turning on a light, use a low-wattage night light.
I find sheer persistence can be useful. If it takes a while to fall asleep, hang in there till you do, even an hour or more. Likewise if you wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep: Stick with it.
Pain obviously disturbs many people’s sleep, and that can be a tough one. What’s more, pain is often related to chronic inflammation, which also damages the brain – awake AND asleep — and is a precursor of dementia.
It so happens we publish a Special Report called How to Save Your Brain that covers all these brain-saving ideas — sleeping better, getting rid of inflammation and much more.
- “Breakdown of myelin implicated in Alzheimer’s, UCLA research shows.” 10 May 2007.
- “Sleep boost production of brain support cells.” 3 September 2013.