People sometimes look at me funny when I say the goal is to sleep smarter and better, not harder; let me explain.
In terms of day-to-day maintenance, proper sleep can help protect you from illnesses, poor judgment, and even car accidents. However, good sleep habits also work to defend you from serious long-term illnesses, like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and dementia.
There’s plenty of new evidence on just how important a good night’s sleep is to maintaining a healthy brain. This week alone, two new studies were released that demonstrated how important sleep is for mental functioning. What’s cool about these studies is that one shows how a lack of sleep affects us in the short term, while the other illustrates that long-term sleep problems may lead to serious health consequences.
Sleep Helps Our Cells Function Smoothly on a Daily Basis
My number-one rule for getting better sleep is to discover your optimal sleep schedule and stick to it. That means going to bed and waking up at the same time every single day, hopefully, based on your chronotype.
Now, there’s a new pair of related studies in animal models that present even more evidence as to why maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and honoring your personal chronotype is so important.
This study examined how circadian rhythms help build synaptic proteins used for healthy cellular functioning and how sleep deprivation interferes with this process. Our bodies have two peak times for synaptic protein production. The first is late in the evening when you’re starting to feel drowsy, and the other is right before you wake up.
The proteins produced at night regulate the production of other essential proteins, and those created during the early mornings govern healthy synapse functioning. By going to bed on time (meaning when your chronotype dictates), you will ensure peak production of these helpful proteins.
On the flip side, though, sleep deprivation interferes with the production of these important proteins. In the study, the brains of the sleep-deprived mice still created the instructions for the proteins but not the proteins themselves, kind of like a printer trying to print without paper.
So knowing your chronotype and going to bed at the time that’s correct for you will ensure that your brain produces the necessary proteins in healthy amounts.
Long-Term Sleep Problems Linked to Alzheimer’s and Dementia
A large-scale study on the United States’ Hispanic population and their sleep habits over a seven-year period yielded some interesting information about long-term sleep deprivation in this population. Researchers looked at the data on over 5,000 participants, ages 45 to 75, during the nationwide Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos and found that lack of sleep and prolonged sleep (sleeping for nine hours or more) were linked to declines in memory, mental processing, and executive functioning (e.g., focus, planning, paying attention, regulating emotions), all of which may be indicative of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Insomnia was more likely to be linked with memory issues, while prolonged sleep was more often associated with poor mental reaction times and decreased reasoning skills. It was unclear, however, if the sleep problems led to cognitive decline, or if the cognitive decline caused the sleep problems.
Hispanics are one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than Caucasians, and this study is the first to really look at sleep issues in this particular demographic. Before anyone worries that the combination of their ancestry and their sleep issues is going to lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis inevitably, all the information in the study was self-reported, so the results should be used as indicators of possible risk, but remember, no one has proven that one causes the other.
It’s still unclear as to what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s very clear that sleep issues play a role. People with Alzheimer’s have more beta-amyloid proteins, which form plaque in the brain, and tau proteins, which form tangles in the brain. We know that stage three and stage four sleep help the brain remove these proteins (like taking out the trash). Poor-quality sleep, disruptions in slow-wave sleep, and lack of sleep have all been linked to greater amounts of one or more of these proteins.
Create a Healthy Sleep Routine Today
If you go to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website and look at their list of non-drug treatments for sleep changes for Alzheimer’s patients, you’ll find many similarities between my core advice for better sleep and what they recommend for struggling with the illness.
- Maintain a Regular Sleep Routine: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day keeps our circadian rhythms in line and helps us produce those proteins. This includes the weekends!
- Get 15 Minutes of Sun in the Morning: This helps regulate melatonin production by turning off the melatonin faucet in your brain.
- Get Your Daily Exercise: Regular exercise is great for your overall health and helping you get to sleep at night. Of course, you shouldn’t do it too close to bedtime if you can help it.
- Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: Stop drinking caffeine eight hours before bedtime and no alcohol within three hours before bedtime.
- Make Sure the Room Is a Comfortable Temperature: Between 65 and 75 degrees is the optimum temperature for sleeping.
While these next tips don’t appear in any form on the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, I think they are important enough to warrant inclusion, especially if you’re looking to begin your effective bedtime ritual. The "Power-Down Hour" is a way of dividing the last hour of the night into three 20-minute sections.
- During the first 20 minutes, get any unfinished business done. Take out the trash, walk the dog, etc.
- The second 20 minutes should be spent doing something relaxing, like journaling or chatting with family members.
- The third 20 minutes should be used for personal hygiene. Warm baths can also help you sleep.
- Remember to turn off screens an hour before bed or use blue-light-blocking glasses. Blue light can inhibit melatonin production.
The key to good sleep is being consistent in your bed and wake-up times and having good rituals before bed that help set the tone for a good night of sleep. Unless you have an actual untreated sleep disorder, good sleep is a habit that we can all develop.
Dr. Michael Breus
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