Sometimes it seems like sleep is a luxury we just can’t afford, but new research shows that if we want to prevent our brains from degenerating prematurely, we can’t afford not to have good sleep habits.
We all know how hard it is to perform at our best after a bad night’s sleep, but it goes deeper than that. New research published by Boston University suggests regular deep sleep can actually help protect against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
BU researchers studied the fluid dynamics of the brain during sleep and found that during deep sleep, the brain triggers its own cleaning system, allowing fluid to wash through the organ and carry away any build-up of proteins and other toxins associated with Alzheimer’s.
Dr Tamer Farid, Consultant Gerontologist at DHA, is a resident expert on sleep and its effect on the mind and body.
“This is another way that sleep proves itself as the natural daily damage prevention mechanism for the brain,” he says.
He explains that the protein build-up is a sticky substance called amyloid. “This amyloid material is presumed to be the cause of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Farid, “and people who deprive themselves of deep sleep are removing less of this material.
People say time heals everything. Actually, sleep heals everything.
“When it comes to the role of deep sleep stages in clearing waste products, amyloid material may be the first of many to be discovered.”
The connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s has always been there, but scientists haven’t been able to explain it.
Now, the results of the fluid dynamics research put us one step closer to being able to understand how sleep deprivation can contribute to degeneration in the brain.
It has often been thought that those who needed less sleep were more efficient in their productivity but Dr Farid suggests this may actually be far from true.
He gives the example of two world leaders who bragged about being able to function on little sleep: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Each said that they never slept more than four hours a night; both of them ended up having Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Farid.
The problem, he says, is when we think of sleep as merely a passive activity, and reminds us that we spend around a third of our lives asleep.
“Sleep is a core body function necessary for survival, similar to eating.”
Dr Farid likens the brain to an orchestra, while asleep. “During the day each part of the brain plays a note. So actually what we are doing during the day is rehearsing for sleep.
“Sleep is the activity that synchronises everything, resetting the brain every night.” He also believes clockwork is the key to better sleep, or more specifically, setting an alarm to wake up. “Because if we have to wake up at the same time every day we automatically have to adjust when to go to sleep,” says Dr Farid.
He adds that the human species is unique in suffering sleep disorders and their effects. “No other creatures will voluntarily decrease their sleep unless of course they are hungry or they are chased by a predator, otherwise, when they feel like sleep, they fall asleep.”
He says the sole difference in this respect is humans having invented artificial light, so we can stay up past our natural bedtimes.
“After sunset our ancestors never used to wake up. They only stayed awake if they had to — like for guarding their tribes — not if they wanted to.
“So sleep was integrated into life in a proper way, they never suffered the complications of staying awake.” His advice is that we try to make the most of bedtime to grow old gracefully: “Don’t deprive your body of the chance to rejuvenate every night.”