The uncomfortable truth: as we live longer, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases – and if you’re waiting for a new wonder drug to save the day, you could be waiting a long while. Alzheimer’s disease is a complex condition with many underlying causes – Dr Dale Bresden likens these factors to 36 holes in a roof – there’s no point in fixing just one. However, sleeping disorders can play a big part in the development of Alzheimer’s, so it’s worthwhile exploring exactly why – and what you can do about it.
Does Lack of Sleep Cause Alzheimer’s?
Lack of sleep is a risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s down to several mechanisms within your body. At night, when you sleep, you’re not only resting your body, your brain actually cleans and looks after itself! A healthy circadian rhythm allows for the process of autophagy to take place efficiently – where cellular parts are recycled in the brain. When you sleep, a growth hormone called somatotropin gets to work, triggering the repair and growth of brain cells.
I’ve written about the glymphatic system previously and the important part it plays in keeping the brain healthy: servicing your central nervous system, and carrying both lymphatic and cerebralspinal fluid, which allow it to flush waste products away from the brain. One of these waste products is amyloid beta, a protein aggregate with a marked association with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease if it builds up a plaque in the brain. And the glymphatic system can only clean your brain at night when you’re in deep sleep.
Another puzzle piece associated with Alzheimer’s is inflammation. As a dentist, I’ve discussed the importance of avoiding inflammation of the gums, and how gingivitis can predict Alzheimer’s. Inflammation can also be the result of an airway sleep disorder. While the link may not seem obvious at first, a lack of oxygen while asleep can increase blood pressure – which in turn triggers an inflammatory response. Now imagine that happening a few hundred times a night, and suddenly the link between sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s seems less far-fetched.
The Link Between NREM Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is considered a disease of old age – although there are always exceptions to the rule. As we get older, we sleep less – and crucially we spend less time in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Not only is NREM sleep more restful than rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, it’s essential to the preservation of new memories. In contrast with this dreamless sleep, REM sleep is associated more with the consolidation of emotional memories.
In many patients, the severity of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms rises in line with the severity of sleep disorders. Disruption of NREM sleep has been associated with a build-up of both tau and amyloid-beta proteins – which are linked with the advance of Alzheimer’s disease, as it creates a build-up of plaque on the brain. The creation of this plaque is actually a protective function gone wrong – a study found that amyloid-beta protects against microbe infection in mice. These findings coincide with the relationship between inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease – giving more weight to the theory that Alzheimer’s disease is an autoimmune disease.
The link between NREM sleep and Alzheimer’s disease is an important discovery because poor NREM sleep is an easy predictor and risk factor for doctors and patients to monitor. After all, as I explained earlier, your glymphatic system can only wash away waste products such as proteins from your brain during NREM sleep. In both mice and humans, increased tau levels were found in the spinal fluid of individuals whose NREM sleep was disturbed. Disrupted sleep does more than just make you sleepy the next day – over time it can seriously affect the way your brain works.
How Can I Improve My Sleep and Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Overall, knowledge of the link between Alzheimer’s disease and lack of NREM sleep is positive – as it allows you to take charge of your health systemically. By improving your sleep – and your breathing at night – you can not only feel more refreshed when you wake, but you can reap a host of health benefits.
Start with these four actions to improve your quality of sleep:
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but basically, it encapsulates a number of good habits to follow before bed. These habits include:
- Designating your bedroom as an electronics-free zone. TV, laptops, cellphones, and tablets can distract you from getting enough rest and settling down. The blue light that some of these devices emit can even interfere with your circadian rhythm outside of daylight hours.
- Keeping your bedroom at a low but comfortable temperature, and as dark and quiet as possible. These are the optimum conditions for sleep – darkness triggers the release of melatonin.
- Stick to the same bedtime each night. Routine and your circadian rhythm do well together.
- Wind down before sleep by reading a book.
- Avoid eating a large meal before bedtime. Although a large meal can help you feel sleepy, it can result in disrupted sleep later on in the night.
- Ditch the sleeping tablets. Residual effects are common for patients who take sleeping pills, and they commonly can interfere with your work or caretaker abilities the next day. Instead, consider taking melatonin if you struggle with insomnia or disturbed sleep – once you’ve ruled out an airway sleep disorder or other underlying issue, as melatonin is better at improving sleep quality in normal sleepers.
- Get checked out. If you’re waking up suddenly in the middle of the night, there may be an underlying reason such as stress, anxiety, depression, hormonal imbalance, or gastroesophageal reflux. Making changes to your lifestyle with the guidance of a functional medicine doctor can increase your chances of getting a restful night’s sleep.
- Visit an Airway Health dental practitioner in order to access AirwayCentric® care. I developed the AirwayCentric® approach alongside Dr. Howard Hindin, as a way to treat our patients as a whole – through the treatment of airway sleep disorders and disordered breathing. As breathing disorders have been shown to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it’s time to get yourself check out.
If you’d like to learn more about our AirwayCentric® approach, pick up a copy of GASP!: Airway Health – The Hidden Path To Wellness by Dr. Michael Gelb and Dr. Howard Hindin. If you’re struggling with brain fog and disturbed sleep in the New York area and suspect disordered breathing is to blame, fill out our contact form, or call to make an appointment with Dr. Gelb on (212) 752-1662.