At first glance, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia seem almost impossible to beat. Could a simple lifestyle change provide significant protection? 

We feel so refreshed once we wake up after a night of healthy, unbroken sleep. If we’re awake or tossing and turning all night, we spend the day fatigued and irritable. That is unless we drink a large cup of coffee to make our brains think we aren’t tired — and sometimes even that fails to work. 

The benefits of sleep go beyond these subjective feelings, however. It turns out that deep sleep activates our brains’ internal cleaning processes. And, could protect against disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia.

Our sleep cycles happen in several stages. Starting off with light sleep and continuing on to deep sleep, which allows for tissue regeneration and energy restoration. Deep sleep also enables us to enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which we dream and store long-term memories. 

How Deep Sleep Cleanses The Brain 

The slow brain waves generated during deep sleep trigger a cleaning mechanism, where a pulse of fluid flows through the brain to remove toxins and metabolic waste.

In a study of 11 participants, researchers used EEG and MRI scanning to see inside the participants’ brains during sleep. The researchers monitored the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which bathes the brain and spinal cord.

While the participants were sleeping, the researchers found large, slow waves of CSF washing through the brain roughly every 20 seconds. Perhaps like a biological washing machine. This wash cycle was a controlled, coordinated process. A wave of electrical activity in the neurons (brain cells) always came before each CSF wave. And blood flow to the brain fell with each wave. Researchers say this action creates more space for the CSF to rush in and clear toxins. 

What Does Sleep Have To Do With Dementia?

The authors detailed their findings that could explain previous research linking poor sleep to a buildup of beta-amyloid, the protein that forms the characteristic destructive plaque in Alzheimer’s disease. People with this type of dementia or its precursors, subjective cognitive impairment (SCI) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often have trouble sleeping. They produce smaller, fewer slow waves, which likely reduces the cleansing flow of CSF. This leads to a vicious cycle where the illness impairs CSF waves, toxins such as beta-amyloid do not get cleared, and the problem progresses. 

In The End of Alzheimer’s, author Dale Bredesen asks another physician if any patients with precursors to the disease seem to spontaneously recover. The answer is “yes.” Those with mild or subjective cognitive impairment often reverse their decline by improving their sleep hygiene

Dr. Bredesen adds that sleep benefits the brain in several other ways. During sleep, a process known as autophagy is activated in the neurons. Literally meaning “self-eating,” this is the recycling of old cellular parts such as mitochondria and proteins to make way for fresh, undamaged ones. The older, dysfunctional parts would otherwise build up and cause dysfunction.

Additionally, growth hormones rise during sleep. As does the production of new neurons. A night of unbroken sleep also prevents us from sneaking midnight snacks. And this period of fasting protects our insulin sensitivity.

Through research and clinical practice, Dr. Bredesen has found that insulin resistance plays a major role in many cases of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Sleep, then, might be a powerful preventative against dementia.

How To Improve Sleep

If I don’t sleep well and want to avoid neurodegenerative diseases, how can I restore a healthy sleeping pattern?

One way is to take a mini digital detox every night and trade screens for good old-fashioned paper books. When volunteers read from paper books instead of e-readers, they were more refreshed in the morning, their melatonin levels were higher and they had earlier circadian (24-hour) clocks. Subjects also fell asleep faster, similar to the effects of eszopiclone, a drug used for insomnia. 

Melatonin is a hormone that helps us sleep. And its levels are tied to a 24-hour rhythm where it should be lowest at night. Exposure to the blue or cold light emitted by screens at night impairs our ability to produce melatonin. If you cannot avoid screen time at night, use blue light blocking glasses

Sleep And Stress

Another factor that sabotages sleep is stress. When college students were surveyed on sleep quality and the lifestyle factors that affect it, the strongest predictor of poor sleep was perceived stress. This included stress about the future and present events, such as study load.

Life’s stresses, such as those related to work or study, are often unavoidable, but supplements like CBD can help ease the effects of stress on our mental and physical health. CBD helps to balance our brain chemistry and promote the growth of new neurons, reversing the effects of chronic stress. 

Finally, it is important to avoid consuming caffeine at night, particularly if you are sensitive to its stimulant effects. In a small study where volunteers drank either regular or decaffeinated coffee, caffeine was linked with poorer sleep length and quality. Those drinking the caffeinated coffee took longer to fall asleep, and their levels of melatonin were lower. If you want something that boosts your body’s ability to maintain its energy without overstimulation, adaptogens like reishi and ashwagandha can be effective coffee substitutes. Some blends, like Rasa Koffee, are made to mimic coffee so you don’t miss out on the rich flavor. 

The origins of many chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, aren’t so much singular as they are puzzles made up of multiple factors. Fortunately, one of the key puzzle pieces isn’t the latest pharmaceutical — it’s one of the basic essentials of life: a healthy amount of deep sleep.

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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