Why sleep is important for brain health

Chronic lack of quality sleep doesn’t just make you feel awful, it causes the brain to feed on the connections between nerve cells called synapses, according to a new study.

You might say that when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain starts to eat itself!

"There are cells in the brain that clean up junk in the brain and dead or damaged brain cells when you sleep," explains Geisinger neurologist Dr. Glen Finney. "This new research shows that sleep deprivation causes these nervous system cleanup cells to go into overdrive. "

Some researchers think that this could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other neurological disorders.

The connection between sleep and Alzheimer’s

A study by researchers published in the journal Neuroscience took a close look at what happens in the brains of mice when they don’t get enough sleep. They saw increased activity of cells called astrocytes, which get rid of debris in the brain.

They also looked at another type of cell called microglial cells, which make up about 15 percent of the brain. These microglial cells clean up brain plaques, or clumps of proteins that form in the space between brain cells. The activity of microglial cells also kicked into high gear in the sleep-deprived mice.

The reason this increase observed in the sleep-deprived mice is significant, and concerning, is because the same type of sustained activity of these "cleanup" cells is also seen in Alzheimer’s patients. Some think that a chronic lack of sleep could be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep is important for a healthy brain

This research doesn’t prove that sleep deprivation and disturbances are a direct cause of Alzheimer’s and other forms of brain decline. However, it is interesting that earlier research showed patients with obstructive sleep apnea – a disorder that disrupts a good night’s sleep – showed higher levels of cognitive decline.

"The takeaway from these studies is that sleep is very important for your brain health, in much the same way diet and exercise are important for the body," said Dr. Finney.

How to protect your brain

One of the most important things you can do to keep your brain sharp and avoid the risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s is to get an adequate amount of sleep as often as possible.

Developing good sleep hygiene is an important first step. Create a routine for yourself that prompts your body to get ready for sleep. This routine should include a regular bedtime and avoiding stimulants such as caffeine later in the day. You should also avoid other sleep disrupters close to bedtime, such as the light from your smartphone and alcoholic beverages.

"In addition to sleep, regular exercise, lowering your cholesterol and blood sugar, and improving your blood pressure will all help you avoid Alzheimer’s," Dr. Finney stressed. "It’s also important to maintain a strong social network and pursue hobbies that challenge you mentally to keep your brain sharp."

Geisinger behavioral neurologist Glen Finney, MD, sees patients at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Finney or another Geisinger neurologist, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.

Woman sleeping