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December 31, 2019

How Sleep Affects Your Brain

“Quality sleep — and getting enough of it at the right times — is as essential to survival as food and water . . . Everyone needs sleep.” (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)

Although plenty about the purpose of sleep still remains a mystery, experts know that, if you don’t get enough quality sleep, your brain can’t form or maintain pathways that allow you to learn or create memories. With poor sleep, it’s difficult to concentrate or to react quickly to situations. A recent study showed that sleep likely plays a key role in removing toxins from your brain, ones that accumulate while you’re awake.

As an NPR.org article explains it, when you’re in a state of deep sleep, electrical signals are generated that seem to serve as the trigger for a brain-cleaning process. This type of brain activity is called “slow waves,” and they appear just before a fluid wash of the brain. This wash, according to an article appearing in the journal, Science, is believed by researchers to remove toxins related to Alzheimer’s disease.

During deep sleep, this fluid pulses at a time when blood flow in the brain is temporarily decreased. This reduction of blood flow thereby provides more room for the cerebrospinal fluid wash to remove these toxins.

Although earlier studies conducted on animals had noted the increased flow of fluid during sleep and observed how waste was carried away, this study was conducted on people — and in real-time. During this study, researchers could actually see the electrical brain activity occur before there was an observable wave of fluid. This suggests the electrical wave was actually triggering the wash function.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

As an article by the National Institutes of Health describes, just one night of poor sleep can boost the amount of beta-amyloid in the brain. And regular sleep deprivation affects the brain in a more significant way because this can lead to a build-up of beta-amyloid, which is associated with impaired brain function, including Alzheimer’s.

In people with Alzheimer’s disease, this protein has clumped together to form plaque. This, in turn, interrupts how neurons in the brain can communicate with one another.

Additional studies are needed to more precisely determine what biological processes and brain functions are taking place. Plus, the connection between beta-amyloid and dementia is likely more complicated than what it may initially seem. The presence of this protein, for example, can actually play a role in sleep problems in the first place.

More about Stages of Sleep

Overall, stages of sleep include three stages of non-REM and one stage of REM sleep. It’s the third stage of non-REM sleep that provides the deep restfulness you need for a good night of sleep.

More About Areas of the Brain

There are numerous areas of the brain that play a role in helping you to fall asleep and get good rest. These include the hypothalamus, brain stem, thalamus, pineal gland, basal forebrain, and amygdala. As far as how many hours of sleep is considered ideal, there is no magic number. In general, most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night; after age 60, though, people often don’t have an uninterrupted night of sleep, waking more easily.

Reducing Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

A professor of public health and neuroscience — who was not connected to the study described above — says you can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s through high-quality sleep. In fact, he says that focusing on sleep quality should be highly prioritized as a strategy.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

If you suffer from poor sleep quality, tips to improve this include:

  • Stick to a schedule, going to bed at the same time each day — and then waking the same time, too.
  • Exercise regularly but avoid exercise a few hours before you’re going to bed.
  • Late in the day, avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
  • Create a relaxing routine before bedtime. This can include a warm bath, reading or something else that works for you.
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature, creating a space that’s quiet without bright lights.
  • Don’t have a television set or computer in your bedroom.
  • If you find that you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something, whether that’s reading a book or taking a bath, listening to relaxing music or something else that works for you.

If these strategies don’t help you get a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor.

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