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Good Quality Sleep Is Crucial to a Healthy Brain

Making sure you sleep well can make a big difference to the health of your brain down the road

Making sure you sleep well can make a big difference to the health of your brain down the road.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), quality sleep is as important to good health as diet and exercise. Regularly missing adequate quality sleep can raise the risk of a range of health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, obesity and dementia. The NIH recommends seven to nine hours of sleep a night for the average person.

Neurologist and sleep medicine specialist Martina Vendrame, MD, with Lehigh Valley Fleming Neuroscience Institute, offers insights to the connection between sleep and your brain’s health:

What's the association between neurological disorders and sleep problems? How does one affect the other?

According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, there is a strong association between neurological disorders and sleep problems. Think of your brain as a control center for everything your body does. Sometimes this control center can have problems, like glitches in a computer. These brain glitches are called neurological disorders.

Your brain also helps you sleep properly. It has a sort of sleep timer, and it needs certain chemicals and structures to work correctly. When you have a neurological disorder, it can mess up this timer and the chemicals your brain uses for sleep.

What are some signs you have sleep problems?

This unsettled sleep can show itself in a few ways:

  1. You might have trouble falling asleep or you might wake up often during the night.
  2. You might feel very sleepy during the day, even if you slept at night.
  3. Your sleep might be restless, meaning it's not very good quality.

When you don't sleep well, it can also make your neurological disorder worse:

  1. For example, if you have shaky hands because of a neurological issue, not sleeping well can make them shakier.
  2.  You could be at a higher risk of developing certain brain problems. Bad sleep might even make you more likely to develop disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

Neurological disorders can disturb your sleep, and bad sleep can make your neurological disorder worse. It's important to manage both the neurological disorder and any sleep problem. Solutions can involve medication, therapy, and/or lifestyle changes to help you sleep better and take better care of your brain.

How can good sleep help protect against neurological disorders?

Getting a good night's sleep is like giving your brain a tune-up. According to the American Brain Foundation, sleep helps your brain stay in good shape and helps to prevent problems with clear thinking and memory. According to the NIH, sleep activates the glymphatic system, which is something of a waste clearance system within the central nervous system.

What happens when you sleep?

  1. When you sleep, your brain gets a chance to cleanse itself by getting rid of harmful stuff. This cleaning process lowers the chances of developing brain diseases.
  2. Sleep is like a librarian for your brain. It helps organize and store information so you can remember things better and learn easier.
  3. Sleep helps your brain manage stress. Too much stress can lead to brain problems, and sleep helps keep stress in check.
  4. Bad sleep disrupts this cleansing process and can leave your brain swollen and inflamed, which also can lead to brain diseases. Good sleep reduces the risk of such inflammation.
  5. Sleep affects how you feel. Not sleeping well can cause sadness or anxiousness. Such feelings on a consistent basis can make it easier to develop brain disorders.
  6. Sleep helps your body make hormones which act like messengers for your brain. If your sleep is unsettled, it can disturb these messengers and cause brain problems.
  7. Quality sleep helps you think more clearly and make good decisions. Not getting enough sleep can unsettle your thinking and increase your risk for brain disorders.
  8. Bad sleep, especially if you stop breathing often at night (such as someone with sleep apnea), can increase your risk for stroke. Good sleep keeps your blood pressure in check and reduces the risk of stroke.

How does the glymphatic system clean the brain of waste material? Why does it only work during sleep?

Imagine your brain is like a busy city, with lots of activity going on. Throughout the day, your brain cells (neurons) are hard at work, using up energy and producing waste products. These waste products can be harmful if they build up significantly.

That’s where the glymphatic system comes in. Think of it as a nighttime cleaning crew that comes to work when you're asleep. It's not active while you’re awake because your brain is too busy with other things. When you finally drift off to sleep, your brain cells actually shrink. This creates more space between them. It's during this time the glymphatic system kicks into high gear.

What is the glymphatic system?

The glymphatic system is like a network of tiny channels or pipes that run through your brain. These channels help to flush away waste products and toxins that have built up while you’re awake. It's like a janitorial team that sweeps through the city streets, picking up trash and keeping everything clean.

One key player in this cleaning process is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is a clear liquid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. When you're asleep, the glymphatic system helps pump CSF through your brain tissue, flushing away waste materials.

This regular cleaning process helps your brain stay healthy. If waste products accumulate over time, they can harm brain cells and contribute to neurological problems, such as Alzheimer's disease.

This is why getting quality sleep is essential for brain health. It gives the glymphatic system the time it needs to do its important job.

How do certain genes help protect short sleepers from Alzheimer's disease?

The NIH recommends most people get seven to nine hours of sleep a night to maximize brain health. However, there are certain genes that can protect short sleepers – people who sleep six hours or less a night and still wake up refreshed – from Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders.

Imagine all genes as tiny instruction books inside your body. These instruction books determine many things about you, including how much sleep you need. Some people have genes that make them short sleepers, meaning they naturally need less sleep than others.

Short sleeper gene advantage

Scientists have discovered that some of these short sleeper genes can also help protect against Alzheimer's disease, a serious brain condition that affects memory and thinking. These special genes seem to give short sleepers an advantage. They help their brains work better even though they don't sleep as much as most people.

Scientists are still figuring out exactly how these genes do this, but they believe they help the brain get rid of harmful stuff more efficiently. These genes that make people short sleepers also act like brain protectors. They help keep the brain healthy and lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, even if these individuals don't sleep as much as others.

What are some tips for getting a good night's sleep?

 To make sure you get good quality sleep and protect your brain, consider these suggestions:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Make your bedroom comfortable, dark and not too hot or cold.
  • Avoid your cellphone before bedtime.
  • Research ways to relax and manage your daily stress.
  • Exercise regularly each day, but not right before bed.
  • Watch what you eat and drink, especially in the evening.
  • If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your primary care physician.
Lehigh Valley Fleming Neuroscience Institute

Lehigh Valley Fleming Neuroscience Institute

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