Sleep May Protect Your Brain from Alzheimer’s—Here’s Why

Updated: Aug. 25, 2017

Skipping sleep can take a toll on your memory and may be associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Amazing-Facts-about-Your-Brain-that-Will-Blow-Your-MindTatiana Ayazo /Rd.comThe brain’s mere three pounds consume 20 percent of the body’s energy. Like any big energy consumer, the brain spews out toxic wastes as it creates thoughts, memories, and chemical instructions. One of these waste products is the amyloid protein thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. During the day, amyloid accumulates in the spaces between brain cells. As we sleep, that amyloid and other toxic byproducts are cleared away. Here are 30 other things you never knew about your brain.

It’s also as we sleep that our brain resets, integrating everything that happened during the day. New experiences and insights are consolidated with older memories. Sleeping also helps us to forget unneeded information and unimportant details, such as the fact that it rained last Monday or that you had tuna for lunch last Friday. Sleep is so essential that no drug can make up for skimping on it. When we sleep too few hours or not deeply enough, we not only feel foggy and less alert—we also prematurely age our brains and raise our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Here are 12 signs your brain is aging faster than you are.

Your Brain On Too Little Sleep

These are some of the consequences of not getting enough sleep:

  • The brain shrinks. A study of 147 adults who ranged in age from 20 to 84 found that insomniacs—people who had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep—experienced a more rapid decline in brain volume throughout their brains over 3½ years than people who slept more deeply. The effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are seriously scary.
  • We make more mistakes. Michigan State University and University of California at Irvine researchers found that people who’d only slept five hours or fewer were more likely to mix up details than participants who’d slept more.
  • Our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease climbs. According to research done at Uppsala University in Sweden, men who reported not sleeping well were 1½ times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the 40-year study than men who reported normal sleep.
reenergize after lunch sleep schedulePeopleImages/iStockA Neurologist’s Prescriptions for a Better Night’s Sleep

The harder you try to fall asleep, the more likely it is that sleep will evade you. You may already know this from firsthand experience, but research supports this advice, too. When Russian researchers told men and women that those who fell asleep the fastest would earn a financial reward, study participants were able to fall asleep, but they startled awake a short time later.

So as you incorporate these prescriptions into your sleep routine, try not to become obsessed with your sleep patterns. See if you can adopt a relaxed mind-set, telling yourself that if you fall asleep, great. If you can’t fall asleep, then get up and do something boring such as folding laundry. Here are some more secrets to start sleeping better in just one day.

1. Walk outdoors in the morning

Sunlight is what triggers our brains to flip off the sleep switch and flip on the awake one. Light travels into the retina and influences production of the hormone melatonin, inhibiting its release and helping to reset our sleep clock. When we get sun exposure in the morning, we feel more awake during the day. Then when we avoid light at night, we naturally become sleepy.

2. Make your bedroom as dark as possible

At night, you want to do the opposite of what you do in the morning. Minimize light so your brain gets the message that it’s time to slow down and fall asleep. This is especially important for so-called “blue” light, emitted by smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and computers, which has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin. Even the glow from power buttons on your alarm clock or radio could potentially disturb sleep. Here’s more about why using technology before bedtime is a bad idea.

3. Shower at night

Our body temperature fluctuates throughout the day and the night, varying from one or two degrees below 98.6 ̊F to one or two degrees above. It generally starts to fall during the evening, reaching its lowest point during sleep, and this fall in temperature is one of the mechanisms that causes us to feel sleepy.

You can enhance the sleepiness induced by the body cooling effect by taking a warm shower or bath in the evening. The shower warms you by a degree or two. But then the warming effect wears off. As your body cools back down, sleepiness sets in. In one small study, women who took a long, warm bath in the mid-afternoon to early evening felt sleepier at bedtime and slept more deeply, too. Here’s more about why it’s better to shower at night.

4. Exercise regularly

Physical fitness seems to help the body to consolidate sleep, possibly by muting stress. Exercise at any time of day will do this, as long as you exercise at least 150 minutes per week.

5. Drink cherry juice regularly

Tart cherries are one of the few foods that contain melatonin and, according to a small, pilot study, fresh tart cherry juice, consumed twice daily, may reduce episodes of insomnia. In the 15 elderly study participants, the cherry juice slashed the time it took them to fall asleep by 17 minutes. The juice used in the study was a proprietary blend not available in stores, and it contained the equivalent of 100 cherries. Look for a tart cherry juice that is all cherries and no sweeteners like sugar. Drink the juice at any time of day—not just in the evening—to benefit from the cherry effect. There’s a scientific reason why cherry is such a popular flavor of candy.

outsmarting alzheimers book coverProtect your brain from dementia and stay sharp for life with the 75-plus tips in Outsmarting Alzheimer’s by Kenneth S. Kosik, MD. Learn more and buy the book here. Plus, here are some more things you can do every day to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest