By Karen Eisenbraun, CHNC
Good sleep is essential for overall health and well-being. A lack of sleep can suppress the immune system; negatively impact mood and concentration; increase the risk of accidents; drive weight gain; and lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease and dementia.
Sleep is closely linked to brain function. Our brains are engaged in restorative processes while we sleep, flushing out damaging substances that accumulate in the brain during waking hours. These substances include precursor proteins that can form into plaque which damages neurons, eventually leading to Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans.
The human brain contains billions of neurons — cells that transmit messages to different parts of the brain and throughout the body. In someone with Alzheimer’s disease, abnormal clumps in the brain known as amyloid plaques disrupt this communication between neurons, leading to loss of function and death of brain cells. Brain damage often starts in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming memories. The result is symptoms such as memory loss, impaired judgment, language problems, confusion, and mood changes.
Amyloid plaques form when precursor proteins known as beta-amyloid build up in the brain. Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein fragment that clumps together to form small clusters, eventually leading to the amyloid plaques that play a central role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Our brains go through a sort of cleaning process while we sleep, according to research from Boston University. The study builds on previous research that demonstrates the changes experienced by the brain during sleep.
During sleep, the glymphatic system flushes away proteins, toxins, and metabolic waste products, including beta-amyloid molecules, before they can clump together and form plaques.
Poor or insufficient sleep makes the glymphatic system less effective, which may lead to neuron damage that can eventually contribute to Alzheimer’s. While more research is needed — it’s too early to say definitively that poor sleep causes Alzheimer’s disease — it’s worthwhile to take steps to improve the quality of your sleep, especially if you suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
A good night’s sleep is about both quality and quantity. Adults should aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. A common misconception is that older people need less sleep, but sleep needs do not actually decrease with age. However, it is common for sleep patterns to change as we age. Older people often have more difficulty falling asleep and wake up more frequently during the night.
To experience the restorative benefits of sleep, the hours spent sleeping must be consecutive. That means they can’t be broken up between a few hours at night and a nap during the day. Several hours of consecutive uninterrupted sleep are needed to fully cycle through the different stages of sleep, all of which are necessary for good health.
If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, it’s important to take steps to improve your sleep. Identifying the underlying cause of any sleep problems will help you to find the right solution.
If you think you’re getting enough sleep, but you wake up feeling groggy or feel tired throughout the day, you could be experiencing sleep disruptions during the night. Certain medications, alcohol, or conditions such as sleep apnea can disrupt sleep.
Stress and anxiety — which many people have been experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — can also cause difficulty sleeping.
Follow these tips to improve the quality of your sleep:
- Establish a consistent routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and remove any screens from your bedroom.
- Use blackout curtains and a white noise machine if necessary to block out light and sound.
- Keep your bedroom cool and use comfortable bedding.
- Wind down before bed with relaxing activities, such as taking a warm bath or drinking a calming tea. Chamomile tea and lavender tea are both good options to drink at night.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine in the evening.
- Reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption in the evening.
- Avoid taking afternoon naps, which could keep you up at night.
If you’ve tried all of these home remedies to improve your sleep and are still experiencing difficulty sleeping, talk to your doctor. Some medications can help treat insomnia.
If your doctor prescribes a sleep medication or other medication to help you sleep, such as an antidepressant, you can use a ScriptSave WellRx discount card to get the lowest price at a pharmacy near you.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.