Sleep & Brain-Health

Sleep & the brain

Sleep is when your body repairs and heals. With the high stimulation and demand of the modern lifestyle, getting enough sleep each night is often a difficult task.

Inadequate or poor quality sleep is associated with stress and unhappiness. Sleep deprivation increases stress hormones like cortisol, which destroys brain cells in the hippocampus (the area of the brain that involves memory and learning). Research consistently points to the importance of sleep in healthy functioning.

In today’s fast paced society, many people are chronically sleep deprived research has shown that sleep deprivation is associated with feelings of stress, exhaustion, depression and poor concentration.

Why is sleep so important?

Research has indicated that sleep may function to clear and filter brains waste and toxins that accumulate in the brain during our waking hours. An over load in brain waste can lead to clouded thinking, impaired memory, build up of stress hormones, lowered immunity, anxiety and depression, and a slowing of neurogenesis
In the short-term, this waste can cause “foggy brain,” however in the long-term this build up could possibly lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s

How to get a good night’s sleep

  • Make sure that you try to get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Train your body to get into a regular schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid bright lights, TV, computers and smartphone use before bed and in the hour before bed as these can stimulate the brain, keeping you awake for longer and preventing you from getting a good nights sleep. Bright lights impede melatonin production and feelings of sleepiness.
  • After a certain time in the evening make sure you put away work to avoid stress and feel calmer.
  • Avoid grains, fluids, sugars – they raise blood sugar and postpone sleep
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening
  • Avoid alcohol before sleep
  • Dark, quiet bedroom

Aside from the psychological effects, sleep deprivation also has ties to weight gain, cancer, cardiovascular disease and lowered immune functioning.

As society becomes increasingly busy and alert in a 24/7 environment, poor sleep duration and quality has become a growing problem. Research has shown that short sleep and poor quality sleep are associated with physical brain changes and declines in cognitive functioning.

Sleep deprivation negatively affects everyday functioning and cognitive abilities


Brain atrophy, while a normal part of the ageing process, appears to be exacerbated by short sleep duration. This has functional impacts on daily life as brain areas responsible for cognition are negatively affected. Gruber et al. (2010) examined the association between habitual sleep duration and cognitive functioning amongst healthy, non-sleep-deprived participants. Healthy children aged 7-11 years underwent nightly sleep recordings for four consecutive nights to determine habitual week-night sleep duration in the home environment. Measures of cognitive functioning and sleepiness were used to measure daytime functioning. The findings showed that longer habitual sleep duration in healthy school-age participants were associated with better performance on measures of perceptual reasoning, overall IQ and academic performance. This study therefore provides evidence to support the accumulating research that sleep deprivation negatively influences functional aspects of daily living. Lim et al. (2013) in a cross-sectional study tested the association between sleep fragmentation and Alzheimer’s in 737 older adults without dementia. Participants underwent regular actigraphy to record their sleep patterns. They also underwent 19 neuropsychological tests at baseline and at follow up 6 years later, and annual evaluation for Alzheimer’s. At follow up, 97 participants had developed Alzheimer’s. Participant’s in the 90th percentile of sleep fragmentation exhibited a 1.5-fold risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to participants in the 10th percentile of sleep fragmentation. The association of sleep fragmentation with incident of Alzheimer’s did not vary along demographic lines and was unchanged after controlling for potential confounders. In a linear mixed effect analysis, a .01 unit increase in sleep fragmentation was associated with a 22% increase in the annual rate of cognitive decline relative to the average rate of decline in the cohort.

Long-term cognitive decline in adults with short sleep duration


Positive associations between short sleep duration and brain atrophy and cognitive decline were found in a longitudinal study by Lo, Loh, Zeng, Sim and Chee (2014), in which participants aged 55 years and older were studied every 2 years. Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); neuropsychological assessment assessing processing speed, executive functioning, attention, verbal memory, and visuospatial memory; assessments on sleep duration and quality; and blood samples. At the completion of the 10-year study, it was found that participants whose sleep duration and quality were below the baseline level of healthy adults had statistically significant expansions of their ventricles. Short sleep duration was further associated with global cognitive performance decline. Contrarily, neither associations on brain or cognitive decline were found amongst healthy adults whose sleep duration and quality were at or above baseline. Consistent with Lo et al. (2014), Spira et al. (2015) also found an association between short sleep duration and cortical thinning amongst cognitively normal older adults. 122 participants with a mean age of 66.6 years underwent MRI scans, dementia assessments, and sleep duration assessment at baseline and at follow ups 8 years later. The results showed that older adults reporting an average of less than 7 hours sleep duration had more rapid cortical thinning in frontal and temporal brain regions than those reporting more than 7 hours sleep. While the mechanisms by which the brain changes are still unclear, it is apparent that sleep duration is associated to age-related changes in brain structure and cognitive performance in relatively healthy older adults

Poor sleep quality associated with dementia


It is not surprising then that alongside detriments to cognition and memory, poor sleep is also associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Ju, McLeland, and Toedebusch (2013) assessed whether amyloid beta (Aβ) deposition was associated with changes in sleep quality or quantity amongst 145 cognitively normal individuals. Participants’ sleep quantity was assessed using an actigraph, whilst their sleep quality was calculated as the percentage of time in bed spent asleep. Aβ deposition was measured using cerebrospinal fluid Aβ42 levels. Concurrent sleep diaries provided nap information. The results showed that of those assessed, 32 participants had Aβ deposition. Compared with those without Aβ deposition, those with Aβ deposition had worse sleep quality after controlling for age and sex. In contrast, quantity of sleep was not significantly different between groups. However, frequent napping for 3 or more days per week was associated with Aβ deposition. These results are clinically significant as Aβ deposition has been shown to be highly associated with Alzheimer’s disease (Maruff et al., 2016). Conversely, sleep disturbance is a common behavioural symptom of Alzheimer’s and dementia (Peter-Derex, Yammine, Bastuji, & Croisile, 2015). Thus, further strengthening the association between sleep and dementia.

Maximise your sleep: Maximise your brain functioning

Think you or someone in your family may have a sleep disorder? Sleep is one of the most vital aspects to maintaining strong brain functioning. We all know that when we experience a poor nights sleep our mood drops and our cognitive skills reduce. It is during sleep that our memories are consolidated and our brain recovers. Chronic sleep disorders, or even just non-optimal sleep, often go hand in hand with lowered mood. They can even lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as cognitive disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Ongoing sleep issues can also create chronic health problems. Improving sleep can have massive affects on improving quality of life.

At our centres we can address sleep issues in both children and adults. We have courses on how to have the best night sleep possible. We can help treat sleep onset disorders (problems getting to sleep) as well as sleep maintenance disorders (waking in the night). We employ a variety of techniques including mindfulness meditation, relaxation, cognitive-behavioural therapy, neurofeedback, diet, and general sleep hygiene. The courses teach you all the tricks to having excellent sleep hygiene such as establishing a regular sleep routine, minimising naps, and avoiding exercise too close to bedtime. It shows you strategies to minimise stress and enhancing relaxation. We also show you how to limit blue light exposure (so melatonin isn’t suppressed), avoid stimulants and  alcohol, and create the optimal environment physically for sleep. Putting sleep disorders to sleep. Maximising your sleep, enhancing brain potential.

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