Sleep to Clean Your Brain

  Photo courtesy of  Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Since the launch of my online course Keeping Your Brain Brilliant, the brain is… well, kinda on my brain.  So you can imagine my delight when Fresh Air host Terry Gross introduced Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley “sleep scientist” who has done a lot of work connecting sleep quality with cognitive function.

Walker is working with evidence that explains why people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble sleeping, and just how their sleep issues lead to a worsening of their condition.

The brain, he says, has a drainage system, only recently discovered, called the “glymphatic” system.  It is the brain’s very own, specialized lymphatic system.  This “sewage” system, as Walker refers to it, is responsible for clearing out the waste that might otherwise harm the brain.  It does this especially while we are sleeping.  One of the waste products that is particularly notable is beta amyloid, the protein considered to be a primary factor in the demise of brain function in Alzheimer’s disease.

Walker notes that the sticky beta amyloid proteins that cling to neurons form plaques, which fouls up the function of the neurons.  This ultimately leads to the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  The shocker here is that this phenomenon is actually connected to lack of sleep.  Those who sleep less than 6 hours nightly are at a higher risk for developing those plaques.  Furthermore, plaques do not distribute themselves evenly, or even willy nilly through out the brain, but rather have a special affinity for the deep sleep centers of the brain.  This means that the less sleep you get, the more beta amyloid plaques will form and disturb your brain’s sleep center, making your sleep worse and setting up a self perpetuating cycle of brain demise. 

Convinced that sleep is so key to preventing mental decline, Walker hopes to develop a brain stimulation technology that mimics the brain waves achieved only by deep sleep, and further hopes that this treatment will serve as a preventative for dementia. 

In the meantime, to improve the quality of your sleep, drop the sleeping pills and follow these 5 helpful hints offered by Dr. Walker:

  1. Sleep in the dark. Block out street lights, clock lights and avoid looking at screens late in the evening.  He even suggests using dim lighting after dark to help your brain prepare for sleep.
  2. No caffeine or alcohol after 2pm.  Caffeine interferes with receptor sites for the hormone adenosine, which is important for signaling sleepiness to the brain.  Alcohol disrupts sleep and creates tiny moments of wakefulness during the night that prevent us from achieving the health-promoting deep sleep.
  3. Stick to a routine.  Go to bed at the same time every day, and wake up at the same time every day.  Weekend or weekday should be the same no matter what.  The sleep cycle thrives on a routine that allows adequate time for 8 hours of sleep.
  4. Sleep in a cool room.  Your body needs to drop temperature to initiate sleep, so a room warmer than 68 degrees could impede your ability to fall and stay asleep.
  5. If you are wakeful during the night, try one of two techniques to help train your brain that bed means rest.  Meditation is a powerful tool for quieting the mind and gaining control over restless thoughts and worries that keep us awake.  If that does not work for you, Walker recommends that you get up and go to a dimly lit room and read quietly.  Avoid stimulants of screens, cell phones, or bright lights.  He says leaving the bed can help the brain learn that the bedroom is for sleep only. 

Matthew Walker, PhD is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkeley, and author of a new book called, “Why We Sleep.” 

Listen to the entire podcast on Fresh Air: How to Fall Asleep

Learn more about developing your own natural self care program for better brain function in my 6-week course Keeping Your Brain Brilliant, starting October 23, 2017.

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