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Published on August 20, 2019

Sleep tips to improve brain health

Sleep Brain Health

Being short of sleep is no joke.

Consider this short list of health risks associated with being chronically sleep-deprived: obesity, diabetes, heart problems, stroke, depression, memory lapses, weakened immune system – plus possibly some cancers and dementia, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Research suggests that even a single night of insufficient sleep can cause insulin resistance in otherwise healthy people, according to a 2010 article in Endocrinology.

“Sleep is equally vital” to good health as proper diet and exercise, said Mir F. Shuttari, MD, a pulmonologist and medical director of the sleep lab at Falmouth Hospital.

So what can you do if you don’t get enough sleep? Can you catch up?

It depends upon whether you’ve missed a full night or two or whether you regularly go without seven to eight hours of sleep a night, he said. An afternoon nap might counter the occasional short night, but the chronically sleep-deprived need to change their lifestyle or they’ll suffer the effects that sleep debt takes on their body and mind, Dr. Shuttari said.

Complicating the matter, people who regularly don’t get enough sleep “become incapable of recognizing” how sleep deprived they are, he said. Patients asked to score their sleepiness symptoms on a form may not answer that they are sleepy, he added. This can be dangerous as lack of sleep can affect their ability to operate machinery safely, which is why the federal government requires truckers to stop periodically and rest, Dr. Shuttari said.

A Downhill Track

The body’s sleep cycle is part of our circadian rhythm, Dr. Shuttari said, which controls certain hormones. One hormone, leptin, is secreted as you fall asleep.

“It gives the signal to the body to suppress the hunger response,” he said.

Leptin’s counterpart is ghrelin, which spurs hunger. When you stay up instead of sleeping, “you’ll be heading to the refrigerator,” Dr. Shuttari said. This pattern increases the likelihood of overeating and weight gain. Continuing to go without adequate sleep can develop metabolic syndrome, a condition that includes high triglycerides, low HDL or “good” cholesterol, high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat and high blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

“That’s a whole different track to go into – a downhill track,” Dr. Shuttari said.

Sleep is the time when the body removes wastes in the brain created by the cells there during waking hours. Lack of sleep can cause these wastes to build up, causing dementia-like symptoms, Dr. Shuttari said.

“Some patients have been wrongly diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s,” he said. “They were just not getting enough sleep.”

Last year the National Institutes of Health reported a study indicating that just one night without sleep increased brain levels of beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In that disease, beta-amyloid forms plaques that block communication in the brain.

The circadian rhythm can shift in older people, but they still need adequate sleep, Dr. Shuttari said. As a result, they may find they need to move their bedtime to early nighttime and their waking hour to early morning.

Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is optimum for adults, Dr. Shuttari said. Adolescents and children need more. However, too much sleep on a regular basis can also be bad for you and may indicate an underlying condition.

“We’re finding people sleeping nine hours or longer have higher mortality – same as people who sleep six hours,” he said.

Dr. Shuttari offered these tips for getting adequate sleep:

  • Establish a regular bedtime, say 10-10:30 p.m.
  • Make your bedroom conducive to sleep: dark, cool and free of distractions
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and exercise three to four hours before bedtime
  • Exercise during the daytime
  • Don’t nap close to bedtime
  • If you don’t sleep enough one night, try to take a nap the following afternoon, preferably between 2 and 4 p.m., when there is a natural dip in wakefulness.

“Be proactive – realize sleep is important,” Dr. Shuttari said.