Nov 012013

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the best way to decrease our risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease is living a healthy lifestyle. New research is indicating that a good night’s sleep is also essential for brain health.

Three years ago, research at Columbia University showed that we can substantially reduce our risks of Alzheimer’s Disease by regularly consuming a Mediterranean-type of diet. This dietary lifestyle includes consuming more fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, fish and poultry, seeds and healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil or canola oil, and eating less red meats and high fat dairy products.

On top of eating a Mediterranean-style of diet, these researchers also found that we can reduce our risks even further with frequent moderate-intensity exercise.

A new study led by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that a good night’s sleep is also essential for long-term brain health. Dr. Nedergaard states that “the restorative nature of sleep appears to be the result of the active clearance of the by-products of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.”

This new understanding of brain activity is made possible with new imaging technologies allowing observation of the activities of a living brain. In this study, medical researchers were allowed to see how the living brains of mice, remarkably similar to human brains, function.

This study shows that our brain functions differently between awake and sleep states. When we’re awake, our brain must use all its energy for cognitive and muscle control functions. It has little energy to remove biological waste products that our brain cells make, while we do our daily activities. Cleaning our brains of biological waste is an activity that can only be accomplished while we’re sleeping.

Janitorial servicing of our brain is reserved during sleep, because the brain in sleep mode has the energy to clean itself rather than using that energy for wake-state activities. Not only that, but when we’re sleeping, the space between our brain cells increases by 60%. This allows large waste molecules to pass easily back to blood vessels that carry these wastes out of the brain and to our liver for waste disposal. Large waste molecules like beta-amyloid proteins.

Beta-amyloid protein plaques are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Clumps of these sticky proteins prevent nutrition from reaching our brain cells, which eventually kills them. If enough beta-amyloid clumps form in our brains to kill vital cognitive brain cells, Alzheimer’s disease develops.

The new research is suggesting that these brain-cell killing proteins is typically removed in a healthy brain during a good night’s sleep. However, if we form the habit of not sleeping between 6 to 8 hours on most nights, these harmful protein clumps just keep building up in our brains. Over time, these beta-amyloid clumps kill enough brain cells that prevent us from having healthy cognitive function, which can eventually lead to death.

We may find that a healthy diet with moderate-intensity exercise keeps our circulatory system healthy enough to deliver essential nutrients to our cognitive brain cells for proper functional activities. A healthy circulatory system is also essential to perform necessary janitorial functions in our brain to remove harmful waste products that can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s. With new research, we now know that a good night’s sleep is necessary to allow our body to remove these harmful waste products from our brain.

So, if you want to substantially reduce your risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease, eat a Mediterranean-type of diet, keep physically active, and get a good quality 6 to 8 hours of sleep every night.