Research highlights importance of good sleep for prevention of Alzheimer’s
Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked July 25, 2019
- Between 1999 and 2014, the death rate for Alzheimer’s disease increased by 55 percent; as of 2014, the annual death toll from Alzheimer’s is thought to be well over half a million
- While genetic factors can raise your risk, Alzheimer’s is largely preventable through healthy lifestyle strategies; anything that promotes insulin resistance will ultimately raise your risk of Alzheimer’s
- Studies have found strong links between poor sleep and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, and, while rarely discussed, your exposure to sunlight and artificial electromagnetic fields also play an important role, as these exposures affect both sleep and brain function
Alzheimer’s disease, a severe and lethal form of dementia, affects over 5 million Americans per year,1 approximately 200,000 of which are under the age of 65. By 2050, prevalence is expected to jump to 16 million, and in the next 20 years it is projected that Alzheimer’s will affect 1 in 4 Americans, rivaling the current prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Telltale symptoms of Alzheimer’s include a decline in memory along with a decline in at least one of the following cognitive abilities:
- Speaking coherently or understanding spoken or written language
- Recognizing or identifying objects
- Ability to perform motor activities
- Abstract thinking and ability to make sound judgments
- Planning and carrying out complex tasks
As of 2014, the annual death toll from Alzheimer’s is thought to be well over half a million,2 making it a greater killer than breast and prostate cancer combined. Between 1999 and 2014 alone, the death rate increased by 55 percent.3 Conventional medicine still has no solid answer to this devastating disease, and while drugs are often recommended, most have been found ineffective.
Alzheimer’s drugs offer little hope
Memantine, sold under the brand name Namenda, for example, has been found to be more or less useless for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. The drug is approved for moderate to severe cases, but doctors often prescribe it off-label for mild cases. A 2011 analysis4 of three clinical trials showed patients with mild Alzheimer’s who took Namenda had no improvement in mental function or their ability to perform everyday tasks when compared to placebo.
Even among moderate to severe Alzheimer’s patients, for which the drug is approved, the researchers found only “meager” improvements. On the other hand, the drug is associated with troubling side effects. Along with dizziness and headache, confusion is listed as one of the most common side effects and this is certainly the last thing a person with Alzheimer’s needs.
Cholinesterase inhibitor drugs such as Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl — which are typically prescribed in combination with memantine — may also do more harm than good. This class of drugs is known to slow your heart rate, significantly increasing your chances of getting a permanent pacemaker, as well as increasing your risk of hip fracture.
Alzheimer’s disease is largely predicated on lifestyle choices
The good news is that Alzheimer’s is largely preventable through healthy lifestyle strategies. There are genetic factors5,6 that can raise your risk, especially the risk of early onset, but this isn’t the case for most people. Genetics also are not a direct and inevitable cause, even when you have genetic predispositions.
The key is to understand what those preventable strategies are. Diet, of course, is a foundational component, and there’s reason to believe the low-fat myth may be a contributor to the Alzheimer’s trend, as your brain needs healthy fats to function properly. The other side of that equation is lowering net carbohydrates, as insulin resistance appears to play an important role7,8,9 — a topic covered in greater depth in “High-Carb Diet May Increase Your Risk of Dementia.”
Indeed, even mild elevation of blood sugar is associated with an elevated risk for dementia.10 Diabetes and heart disease11 are also known to elevate your risk, and both are rooted in insulin resistance. According to Dr. David Perlmutter, a neurologist and author of “Grain Brain” and “Brain Maker,” anything that promotes insulin resistance, like a processed food diet, will ultimately also raise your risk of Alzheimer’s.
While the exact mechanisms are still unclear (and may be manifold), insulin resistance appears to promote cognitive decline by adversely impacting the blood vessels in your brain, promoting the formation of plaques and hindering memory formation, as insulin is involved in your brain’s formation of synaptic connections.
On the other hand, when your body burns fat as its primary fuel, ketones are created, which burn efficiently, are a superior fuel for your brain, and generate fewer reactive oxygen species and less free radical damage. A ketone called beta hydroxybutyrate is also a major epigenetic player, stimulating beneficial changes in DNA expression, thereby reducing inflammation and increasing detoxification and antioxidant production.
Poor sleep linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s
Sleep is another important component. Stress and poor sleep often go hand in hand and, like stress, lack of restorative sleep can wreak havoc on your brain function. It can actually lead to loss of brain volume,12,13,14 and studies have repeatedly shown poor sleep can contribute to and accelerate onset of Alzheimer’s disease.15
Part of the reason for this is related to the fact that your brain removes toxic waste only during deep sleep.16,17,18,19 Sleep is also necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain.20,21,22 In other words, without sufficient sleep, your neurons begin to degenerate.
Unfortunately, research shows you cannot prevent this damage by trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends. In fact, some of the latest research shows even a single night of poor sleep increases amyloid-beta levels in healthy adults, and the more frequently they experience sleep disruptions, the higher their amyloid-beta levels rise.
Hence, it really is important to maintain a regular sleep schedule where you get enough sleep on a nightly basis. As a general rule, adults need right around eight hours of sleep each night. The study in question was published in the journal Brain.23 As reported by Science News:24
“Healthy adults built up Alzheimer’s-associated proteins in their cerebral spinal fluid when prevented from getting slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep … Just one night of deep-sleep disruption was enough to increase the amount of amyloid-beta, a protein that clumps into brain cell‒killing plaques in people with Alzheimer’s.
People in the study who slept poorly for a week also had more of a protein called tau in their spinal fluid than they did when well rested. Tau snarls itself into tangles inside brain cells of people with the disease …
Without proper deep sleep, brain cells continue to churn out … more A-beta and tau than a well-rested brain. Some research has suggested that toxic proteins get flushed out of the brain during sleep. Messing with slow-wave sleep doesn’t seem to interfere with this wash cycle …”
Deep sleep is essential for waste removal
The link between sleep quality and Alzheimer’s risk was also validated in a recent Neurology study,25,26 which found that people who slept poorly had higher levels of plaque and tangle indicators in their spinal fluid than those who slept well. Animal research27 has also shown that mice that sleep well are able to more effectively clear amyloid-beta from their brain, suggesting the cleansing that occurs during deep sleep indeed does help prevent buildup of these harmful proteins.
The discovery of this brain-cleansing activity is a fairly recent one. It wasn’t until 2012 that researchers published findings28,29 showing your brain has a very unique method of removing toxic waste, similar to the body’s lymphatic system. Because of this similarity, this waste removal system was dubbed the glymphatic system.30,31,32,33 The “g” in glymphatic is a nod to “glial cells,” the brain cells that manage this system.
Now, your lymphatic system does not include your brain, as your brain is a closed system, protected by the blood-brain barrier, which controls what can go through and what cannot. For this reason, it was thought the brain had no way of cleansing itself. As it turns out, the glymphatic system gets into your brain by “piggybacking” on the blood vessels in your brain.
By pumping cerebral spinal fluid through your brain tissue, the glymphatic system flushes the waste from your brain back into your body’s circulatory system. From there, the waste eventually reaches your liver, where it’s ultimately eliminated. The clincher is that this system ramps up its activity during sleep.
During sleep, your glymphatic system becomes 10 times more active than during wakefulness. Simultaneously, your brain cells shrink by about 60 percent, allowing for greater efficiency of waste removal. During the day, the constant brain activity causes your brain cells to swell in size until they take up just over 85 percent of your brain’s volume,34 thereby disallowing effective waste removal.
More recently, researchers discovered35 that the blood-brain barrier naturally tends to become more permeable with age, allowing more toxins to enter. In conjunction with reduced efficiency of the glymphatic system, damage in both your brain and blood-brain barrier can start to accumulate at an increased pace. This deterioration is thought to play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
The hidden role of sunlight and artificial electromagnetic fields
Your exposure to native and non-native electromagnetic fields (EMFs) also play a role here — both in terms of how these exposures affect your sleep and your brain function. Sunlight is a natural or native form of EMF, whereas magnetic, artificial light, electrical and microwave radiation are forms of non-native or artificial EMF exposures. The latter includes not only your microwave oven but also cellphones, routers and portable phones.
Getting bright sun exposure during the day, especially early in the morning, is one important factor that influences your ability to sleep well at night. If you have trouble sleeping, be sure to spend at least 15 to 30 minutes (or more) outdoors, especially early in the morning, and avoid unopposed blue light sources, especially at night, such as LED and fluorescent lighting and LED electronic screens like tablets, computers and TVs.
You can somewhat mitigate the negative impact of artificial lights and electronic screens in the evening by wearing blue-blocking glasses. I put on my red-colored glasses as soon as the sun sets, as it not only blocks blue but also green and yellow, which can also impair sleep. Also, be sure to sleep in complete darkness. If you can see your hand in front of your face, your bedroom is too bright.
Recent research36 reveals even dim light exposure during sleep can affect your cognition the next day, specifically your cognition and working memory. Artificial EMFs, including microwave radiation from your cellphone, Wi-Fi routers, smart meters and more, and electromagnetic interference from the electric grid (dirty electricity), not only disrupt your sleep, but also contribute to Alzheimer’s more directly by acting as mitochondrial poisons.
How microwave radiation poisons mitochondria and damages your brain
Due to the pioneering work37,38,39,40 of Dr. Martin Pall, we now know that voltage gated calcium channels (VGCCs) are over 7 million times more sensitive to microwave radiation from cell phones, portable phones, Wi-Fi, smart meters and baby monitors, than the charged particles inside and outside our cells. This means the safety standards for this exposure are off by a factor of 7 million.
When these EMFs hit your VGCCs, nearly 1 million calcium ions per second are released into the cell, which then causes the following devastating chain of events: First, the cell releases excessive nitric oxide, which combines with superoxide to form peroxynitrite. The peroxynitrites then form hydroxyl free radicals — the most destructive free radicals known to man, which causes massive mitochondrial dysfunction.
The tissues with the greatest density of VGCCs include your brain and the electrical conduction system of your heart. When the VGCCs in your brain are activated, it causes a major disruption in neurotransmitter and hormonal balance that can radically increase the risk for anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD and Alzheimer’s.
Failure to take steps to minimize exposure not only will damage your DNA and increase your risk of most chronic illness, but also seriously impair your body’s ability to remove toxins, and significantly impair your immune response to address the large variety of infectious assaults.
Based on what I’ve found so far, I’m convinced artificial EMF exposures are a significant health threat and a hidden factor underlying many chronic diseases, especially neurological problems such as depression and dementia.
Personally, I never keep my cellphone on my body unless it is in airplane mode, and keep the phone away from my body with a selfie stick while speaking on it. I also strongly recommend shutting off your Wi-Fi at night. You clearly don’t need it while sleeping. All it does is raise your risk for health problems, including Alzheimer’s.
Guidelines for maintaining healthy brain function with age
I do not believe failing memory and eventual dementia are par for the course for aging. Nor do I believe Alzheimer’s is an inevitability for a majority of our elderly population. Among the main culprits are a low-fat, high-sugar diet, excessive EMF exposure combined with lack of sun exposure and poor sleep. But there are many other contributing factors as well. Below is a summary of prevention strategies covered above and in previous articles:
|Eat real food, ideally organic — Avoid processed foods of all kinds, as they contain a number of ingredients harmful to your brain, including refined sugar, processed fructose, grains (particularly gluten), vegetable oils, genetically engineered ingredients and pesticides like glyphosate. In one animal study, a junk food diet high in sugar resulted in impaired memory after just one week.41
Ideally, keep your added sugar levels to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you already have insulin/leptin resistance or any related disorders. As a general rule, you’ll want to keep your fasting insulin levels below 3.
Opting for organic produce will help you avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Most will also benefit from a gluten-free diet, as gluten makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they sensitize your immune system and promote inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Research also shows your blood-brain barrier is negatively affected by gluten.
|Replace refined carbohydrates with healthy fats — Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat into energy.
The medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil and MCT oil are a great source of ketone bodies. Other healthy fats include avocados, butter, clarified butter (ghee), organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, grass fed meats and raw nuts such as pecans and macadamia.
Avoid all trans fats or hydrogenated fats. This includes margarine, vegetable oils and various butter-like spreads. Also make sure you’re getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats by eating fatty fish such as wild Alaskan salmon (which is not allowed to be farmed or genetically engineered), anchovies, sardines and herring, or by taking a supplement like krill oil.
High intake of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA help prevent cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease, thereby slowing down its progression and lowering your risk of developing the disorder in the first place.
|Eat plenty of folate-rich vegetables — Avoid supplements like folic acid, which is the inferior synthetic version of folate. Juicing your vegetables is an excellent option to ensure you’re getting enough of them in your diet.|
|Optimize your gut flora — To do this, avoid processed foods, antibiotics and antibacterial products, fluoridated and chlorinated water, and be sure to eat traditionally fermented and cultured foods, along with a high-quality probiotic if needed. Dr. Steven Gundry does an excellent job of expanding on this in his new book “The Plant Paradox.”
Glyphosate, which is one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals today, causes extreme disruption of your gut microbes’ function and lifecycle; preferentially affecting beneficial bacteria while promoting the growth of pathogens in your intestines. It also inhibits enzymes that catalyze the oxidation of organic substances, which appears to be an overlooked component of glyphosate’s toxicity to mammals.
By limiting the ability of these enzymes to detoxify foreign chemical compounds, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of chemicals and environmental toxins. Glyphosate contamination is most prevalent in genetically engineered grains, which are now pervasive in most processed foods sold in the U.S.
|Optimize your magnesium levels — Preliminary research strongly suggests a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Unfortunately, most magnesium supplements do not pass the blood-brain levels, but a new one, magnesium threonate, appears to and holds some promise for the future for treating this condition, and may be superior to other forms.|
|Intermittently fast — Intermittent fasting is a powerful tool to jump-start your body into remembering how to burn fat and repair the insulin/leptin resistance that is a primary contributing factor for Alzheimer’s.|
|If you enjoy black coffee, keep the habit — While I would not encourage you to drink coffee if you’re not already a coffee drinker, if you enjoy it, there’s good news. Caffeine triggers the release of BDNF that activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, thereby improving your brain health.
In one study, people with mild cognitive impairment whose blood levels of caffeine were higher (due to coffee consumption) were less likely to progress to full-blown dementia compared to those who did not drink coffee.42 In another study, older women whose coffee consumption was above average had a lower risk of dementia.43
Just make sure your coffee is organic, as coffee tends to be heavily sprayed with pesticides. For more details on making your coffee habit as healthy as possible, please see my previous article, “Black Coffee in the Morning May Provide Valuable Health Benefits.”
Beneficial Lifestyle Strategies
|Move regularly and consistently throughout the day — It’s been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized,44 thus slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1 alpha. Research has shown people with Alzheimer’s have less PGC-1 alpha in their brains and cells that contain more of the protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s.
The following lecture by physical therapist Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Ph.D., details the impact of exercise on dementia prevention and treatment.
|Get plenty of restorative sleep — Sleep is necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain. Wakefulness is associated with mitochondrial stress; without sufficient sleep, neuron degeneration sets in. While sleep problems are common in Alzheimer’s patients, poor sleep may also be contributing to the disease by driving the buildup of amyloid plaques in your brain.
While you sleep, your brain flushes out waste materials, and if you don’t sleep well, this natural detoxification and clean-out process will be severely hampered.
|Address your stress — My favorite tool for stress management is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).|
|Get sensible sun exposure — Research shows people living in northern latitudes have higher rates of death from dementia and Alzheimer’s than those living in sunnier areas, suggesting vitamin D and/or sun exposure are important factors.45 Sufficient vitamin D is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s.
Researchers also believe optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. If you are unable to get sufficient amounts of sun exposure, make sure to take daily supplemental vitamin D3 to make your blood level at least 40 to 60 ng/ml. This is typically about 8,000 units of vitamin D for most adults.
That said, it’s important to recognize that sun exposure is important for reasons unrelated to vitamin D. Your brain responds to the near-infrared light in sunlight in a process called photobiomodulation.
Research shows near-infrared stimulation of the brain boosts cognition and reduces symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including more advanced stages of the disease. Delivering near-infrared light to the compromised mitochondria synthesizes gene transcription factors that trigger cellular repair, and your brain is one of the most mitochondrial-dense organs in your body.
|Dramatically reduce your exposure to non-native EMFs (cellphones, Wi-Fi routers, modems and more) — The primary pathology behind cellphone damage is not related specifically to brain tumors, or even to cancer. The real danger lies in damage from the reactive nitrogen species peroxynitrites.46 Increased peroxynitrites from cellphone exposure will damage your mitochondria, and your brain is the most mitochondrial-dense organ in your body.
Increased peroxynitrite generation has also been associated with increased levels of systemic inflammation by triggering cytokine storms, autonomic hormonal dysfunction and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Peroxynitrite is an unstable structural ion produced in your body after nitric oxide is exposed to superoxide, and this complex chemical process begins with exposure to low-frequency microwave radiation from your cellphone, Wi-Fi and cellphone towers.47,48
|Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body — Dental amalgam fillings are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity; however, you should be healthy before having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.|
|Avoid and eliminate aluminum from your body — Common sources of aluminum include antiperspirants, nonstick cookware and vaccine adjuvants. For tips on how to detox aluminum, please see my article, “First Case Study to Show Direct Link between Alzheimer’s and Aluminum Toxicity.” There is some suggestion that certain mineral waters high in silicic acid may help your body eliminate aluminum.|
|Avoid flu vaccinations — Most flu vaccines contain both mercury and aluminum.|
|Avoid statins and anticholinergic drugs — Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers.
Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol, deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.
|Challenge your mind daily — Mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer’s disease.|
|Astaxanthin readily crosses your blood-brain barrier; one study49 found it may help prevent neurodegeneration associated with oxidative stress and make for a potent natural “brain food.”
You can get some astaxanthin by taking krill oil, which is a fantastic omega-3 fat supplement. Boost your astaxanthin even more by adding a pure astaxanthin supplement to your nutritional regimen. For optimal absorption, make sure to take krill oil and/or astaxanthin with a fat-containing meal, since both are fat-soluble.
|Gingko biloba — A1997 study50 showed Ginkgo improves cognitive performance and social functioning for those suffering from dementia. Another 2006 study51 found Gingko as effective as the dementia drug Aricept (donepezil) for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s type dementia. A 2010 meta-analysis52 also found Gingko biloba to be effective for a variety of types of dementia.|
|Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) — ALA has been shown to help stabilize cognitive functions among Alzheimer’s patients and may slow the progression of the disease.53,54|
|Vitamin B12 — A small Finnish study55 found people who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s. For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12 the risk of developing Alzheimer’s was reduced by 2 percent.
Sublingual methylcobalamin may be your best bet here. Large doses of B vitamins can halve the rate of brain shrinkage in elderly people with memory problems. It may slow their progression toward dementia. Another two-year clinical trial56 assessing the effect of B vitamins on mild cognitive impairment found that high doses of B vitamins successfully limited brain shrinkage.