A new study links poor sleep quality in older adults with elevated levels of tau, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers report poor sleep quality later in life may be associated with declining brain health and may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.
Summary: A new study links poor sleep quality in older adults with elevated levels of tau, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers report poor sleep quality later in life may be associated with declining brain health and may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.
Poor sleep is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. People with the disease tend to wake up tired, and their nights become even less refreshing as memory loss and other symptoms worsen. But how and why restless nights are linked to Alzheimer’s disease is not fully understood.
Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis may have uncovered part of the explanation. They found that older people who have less slow-wave sleep – the deep sleep you need to consolidate memories and wake up feeling refreshed – have higher levels of the brain protein tau. Elevated tau is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease and has been linked to brain damage and cognitive decline.
The findings, published Jan. 9 in Science Translational Medicine, suggest that poor-quality sleep in later life could be a red flag for deteriorating brain health.
“What’s interesting is that we saw this inverse relationship between decreased slow-wave sleep and more tau protein in people who were either cognitively normal or very mildly impaired, meaning that reduced slow-wave activity may be a marker for the transition between normal and impaired,” said first author Brendan Lucey, MD, an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Washington University Sleep Medicine Center. “Measuring how people sleep may be a noninvasive way to screen for Alzheimer’s disease before or just as people begin to develop problems with memory and thinking.”
The brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans, start slowly and silently. Up to two decades before the characteristic symptoms of memory loss and confusion appear, amyloid beta protein begins to collect into plaques in the brain. Tangles of tau appear later, followed by atrophy of key brain areas. Only then do people start showing unmistakable signs of cognitive decline.
The challenge is finding people on track to develop Alzheimer’s before such brain changes undermine their ability to think clearly. For that, sleep may be a handy marker.
To better understand the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, Lucey, along with David Holtzman, MD, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and head of the Department of Neurology, and colleagues studied 119 people 60 years of age or older who were recruited through the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Most – 80 percent – were cognitively normal, and the remainder were very mildly impaired.
The researchers monitored the participants’ sleep at home over the course of a normal week. Participants were given a portable EEG monitor that strapped to their foreheads to measure their brain waves as they slept, as well as a wristwatch-like sensor that tracks body movement. They also kept sleep logs, where they made note of both nighttime sleep sessions and daytime napping. Each participant produced at least two nights of data; some had as many as six.
The researchers also measured levels of amyloid beta and tau in the brain and in the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. Thirty-eight people underwent PET brain scans for the two proteins, and 104 people underwent spinal taps to provide cerebrospinal fluid for analysis. Twenty-seven did both.
After controlling for factors such as sex, age and movements while sleeping, the researchers found that decreased slow-wave sleep coincided with higher levels of tau in the brain and a higher tau-to-amyloid ratio in the cerebrospinal fluid.
“The key is that it wasn’t the total amount of sleep that was linked to tau, it was the slow-wave sleep, which reflects quality of sleep,” Lucey said. “The people with increased tau pathology were actually sleeping more at night and napping more in the day, but they weren’t getting as good quality sleep.”
Reduced amounts of slow brain waves – the kind that occur in deep, refreshing sleep – are associated with high levels of the toxic brain protein tau. This computer-generated image maps the areas where the link is strongest, in shades of red and orange. A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that decreased deep sleep is associated with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Brendan Lucey.
If future research bears out their findings, sleep monitoring may be an easy and affordable way to screen earlier for Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers said. Daytime napping alone was significantly associated with high levels of tau, meaning that asking a simple question – How much do you nap during the day? – might help doctors identify people who could benefit from further testing.
“I don’t expect sleep monitoring to replace brain scans or cerebrospinal fluid analysis for identifying early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but it could supplement them,” Lucey said. “It’s something that could be easily followed over time, and if someone’s sleep habits start changing, that could be a sign for doctors to take a closer look at what might be going on in their brains.”
If you’re feeling stressed out, welcome to the club. Statistics show that stress in general, as well as extreme levels of stress, are both on the rise in the United States — and many people feel they’re simply not doing enough to manage that stress.
There are plenty of tried-and-true methods that can help people de-stress – such as exercise, socializing, and participating in hobbies – but there is one very powerful stress management technique that has slipped under the radar: adding prebiotics to the diet.
While probiotics have been getting a lot of much-deserved attention lately for their significant health benefits, prebiotics have been largely glossed over for some reason. Probiotics are the good bacteria that are found in fermented foods, whereas prebiotics serve as the food for this “good” gut bacteria. Prebiotics might be lesser known than probiotics, but they are no less powerful.
According to persuasive research from the University of Colorado Boulder, prebiotics can help manage stress by altering the structure of the brain in constructive ways.
The researchers divided three-week-old male rats into groups and gave some standard chow, while others got chow with prebiotics in it. They then measured how their diets impacted their behavior using tests such as open field tests, which assess anxiety levels by measuring how much time the animals are willing to spend in open areas. They also used EEG brain activity testing to monitor the animals’ sleep/wake cycles, as well as their gut bacteria and body temperature.
They found that not only where the supplemented animals less anxious, but they also slept better than the control group. The mice who took prebiotics spent more time in the restful and restorative non-REM sleep then those that did not take prebiotics. The researchers also say that the dietary prebiotics can improve sleep in the REM and non-REM stages after stressful events.
Adding even more significance to the findings was the fact that the regions in the brain associated with brain plasticity actually increased in size in those rats that were fed prebiotics. Even though this particular trial specifically examined brain development in young animals, the researchers say that they believe prebiotic ingredients can protect people of any age from stress.
Some good natural sources of prebiotic include artichokes, leeks, onions, raw garlic, and chicory. When gut bacteria digest the prebiotic fibers found in these food, it causes them to multiply, which has the effect of improving get health overall. It also releases byproducts that can impact brain function.
Fortunately, prebiotics are heat-resistant, which means cooking foods that contain them won’t destroy them and they will reach your intestine without being affected by the digestion process.
The prospect of getting rid of stress is probably more than enough to send you the grocery store in search of food that contains prebiotics. However, you might also like to know that they have plenty of other beneficial effects for your body. For example, because they improve the gut microbiome, they can help combat constipation and diarrhea, prevent inflammatory bowel disease, help with intestinal cell detoxification, and increase nutrient absorption.
One particular type of prebiotic called resistant starch has been shown to help stabilize blood glucose levels, reduce appetite, encourage weight loss, and increase sensitivity to insulin. However, it’s important to keep in mind at this only applies to natural resistant starches and not those made with chemical processes. Resistant starch can be found in unripe bananas and plantains; potatoes and legumes that have been cooked and then cooled; potato starch; and cassava powder.
Adopting a healthy habit to help manage stress is a win-win situation for your mind and your body.
THE CLEAN CYCLE Lack of sleep may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease by robbing the brain of the time it needs to wash away sticky proteins.
Neuroscientist Barbara Bendlin studies the brain as Alzheimer’s disease develops. When she goes home, she tries to leave her work in the lab. But one recent research project has crossed into her personal life: She now takes sleep much more seriously.
Bendlin works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home to the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a study of more than 1,500 people who were ages 40 to 65 when they signed up. Members of the registry did not have symptoms of dementia when they volunteered, but more than 70 percent had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.
Since 2001, participants have been tested regularly for memory loss and other signs of the disease, such as the presence of amyloid-beta, a protein fragment that can clump into sticky plaques in the brain. Those plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
Each person also fills out lengthy questionnaires about their lives in the hopes that one day the information will offer clues to the disease. Among the inquiries: How tired are you?
Some answers to the sleep questions have been eye-opening. Bendlin and her colleagues identified 98 people from the registry who recorded their sleep quality and had brain scans. Those who slept badly — measured by such things as being tired during the day — tended to have more A-beta plaques visible on brain imaging, the researchers reported in 2015 in Neurobiology of Aging.
Bendlin’s studies are part of a modest but growing body of research suggesting that a sleep-deprived brain might be more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. In animal studies, levels of plaque-forming A-beta plummet during sleep. Other research suggests that a snoozing brain runs the “clean cycle” to remove the day’s metabolic debris — notably A-beta — an action that might protect against the disease. Even one sleepless night appears to leave behind an excess of the troublesome protein fragment (SN Online: 7/10/17).
But while the new research is compelling, plenty of gaps remain. There’s not enough evidence yet to know the degree to which sleep might make a difference in the disease, and study results are not consistent.
A 2017 analysis combined results of 27 studies that looked at the relationship between sleep and cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s. Overall, poor sleepers appeared to have about a 68 percent higher risk of these disorders than those who were rested, researchers reported last year in Sleep. That said, most studies have a chicken-and-egg problem. Alzheimer’s is known to cause difficulty sleeping. If Alzheimer’s both affects sleep and is affected by it, which comes first?
For now, the direction and the strength of the cause-and-effect arrow remain unclear. But approximately one-third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived (getting less than seven hours of sleep a night) and Alzheimer’s is expected to strike almost 14 million U.S. adults by 2050 (5.7 million have the disease today). The research has the potential to make a big difference.
It would be easier to understand sleep deprivation if scientists had a better handle on sleep itself. The brain appears to use sleep to consolidate and process memories (SN: 6/11/16, p. 15) and to catalog thoughts from the day. But that can’t be all. Even the simplest animals need to sleep. Flies and worms sleep.
But mammals appear to be particularly dependent on sleep — even if some, like elephants and giraffes, hardly nod off at all (SN: 4/1/17, p. 10). If rats are forced to stay awake, they die in about a month, sometimes within days.
And the bodies and brains of mice change when they are kept awake, says neurologist David Holtzman of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In one landmark experiment, Holtzman toyed with mice’s sleep right when the animals’ brain would normally begin to clear A-beta. Compared with well-rested mice, sleep-deprived animals developed more than two times as many amyloid plaques over about a month, Holtzman says.
Alzheimer’s disease disrupts sleep. And disrupted sleep itself might encourage Alzheimer’s by allowing buildup of amyloid-beta, or A-beta, which is thought to lead to the death of neurons. This cycle of sleep deprivation can also affect levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps the body to sleep, and can interfere with metabolism, a disruption that is also a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
Source: Y. Saeed and S.M. Abbott/Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports 2017
He thinks Alzheimer’s disease is a kind of garbage collection problem. As nerve cells, or neurons, take care of business, they tend to leave their trash lying around. They throw away A-beta, which is a leftover remnant of a larger protein that is thought to form connections between neurons in the developing brain, but whose role in adults is still being studied. The body usually clears away A-beta.
But sometimes, especially when cheated on sleep, the brain doesn’t get the chance to mop up all the A-beta that the neurons produce, according to a developing consensus. A-beta starts to collect in the small seams between cells of the brain, like litter in the gutter. If A-beta piles up too much, it can accumulate into plaques that are thought to eventually lead to other problems such as inflammation and the buildup of tau, which appears to destroy neurons and lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
About a decade ago, Holtzman wanted to know if levels of A-beta in the fluid that bathes neurons fluctuated as mice ate, exercised, slept and otherwise did what mice do. It seemed like a run-of-the-mill question. To Holtzman’s surprise, time of day mattered — a lot. A-beta levels were highest when the animals were awake but fell when the mice were sleeping (SN: 10/24/09, p. 11).
“We just stumbled across this,” Holtzman says. Still, it wasn’t clear whether the difference was related to the hour, or to sleep itself. So Holtzman and colleagues designed an experiment in which they used a drug to force mice to stay awake or fall asleep. Sure enough, the A-beta levels in the brain-bathing fluid rose and fell with sleep, regardless of the time on the clock.
A-beta levels in deeply sleeping versus wide-awake mice differed by about 25 percent. That may not sound like a dramatic drop, but over the long term, “it definitely will influence the probability [that A-beta] will aggregate to form amyloid plaques,” Holtzman says.
Published in Science in 2009, the paper triggered a flood of research into sleep and Alzheimer’s. While the initial experiment found that the condition worsens the longer animals are awake, research since then has found that the reverse is true, too, at least in flies and mice.
Using fruit flies genetically programmed to mimic the neurological damage of Alzheimer’s disease, a team led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine reversed the cognitive problems of the disease by simply forcing the flies to sleep (SN: 5/16/15, p. 13).
Researchers from Germany and Israel reported in 2015 in Nature Neuroscience that slow-wave sleep — the deep sleep that occupies the brain most during a long snooze and is thought to be involved in memory storage — was disrupted in mice that had A-beta deposits in their brains. When the mice were given low doses of a sleep-inducing drug, the animals slept more soundly and improved their memory and ability to navigate a water maze.
Nearly every night of our lives, we undergo a startling metamorphosis.
Our brain profoundly alters its behavior and purpose, dimming our consciousness. For a while, we become almost entirely paralyzed. We can’t even shiver. Our eyes, however, periodically dart about behind closed lids as if seeing, and the tiny muscles in our middle ear, even in silence, move as though hearing. We are sexually stimulated, men and women both, repeatedly. We sometimes believe we can fly. We approach the frontiers of death. We sleep.
Around 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote an essay, “On Sleep and Sleeplessness,” wondering just what we were doing and why. For the next 2,300 years no one had a good answer. In 1924 German psychiatrist Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph, which records electrical activity in the brain, and the study of sleep shifted from philosophy to science. It’s only in the past few decades, though, as imaging machines have allowed ever deeper glimpses of the brain’s inner workings, that we’ve approached a convincing answer to Aristotle.
Everything we’ve learned about sleep has emphasized its importance to our mental and physical health. Our sleep-wake pattern is a central feature of human biology—an adaptation to life on a spinning planet, with its endless wheel of day and night. The 2017 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists who, in the 1980s and 1990s, identified the molecular clock inside our cells that aims to keep us in sync with the sun. When this circadian rhythm breaks down, recent research has shown, we are at increased risk for illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.
Yet an imbalance between lifestyle and sun cycle has become epidemic. “It seems as if we are now living in a worldwide test of the negative consequences of sleep deprivation,” says Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School.
The average American today sleeps less than seven hours a night, about two hours less than a century ago. This is chiefly due to the proliferation of electric lights, followed by televisions, computers, and smartphones. In our restless, floodlit society, we often think of sleep as an adversary, a state depriving us of productivity and play. Thomas Edison, who gave us light bulbs, said that “sleep is an absurdity, a bad habit.” He believed we’d eventually dispense with it entirely.
A full night’s sleep now feels as rare and old-fashioned as a handwritten letter. We all seem to cut corners, fighting insomnia through sleeping pills, guzzling coffee to slap away yawns, ignoring the intricate journey we’re designed to take each evening. On a good night, we cycle four or five times through several stages of sleep, each with distinct qualities and purpose—a serpentine, surreal descent into an alternative world.
If you are an alcoholic who consciously wants to stop drinking but can’t; a heavy drinker who never gives any thought to whether or not you are drinking too much, or a social drinker who believes that drinking is important, compelling you to continue with the addiction – these 8 reasons will convince you to …
If you are an alcoholic who consciously wants to stop drinking but can’t; a heavy drinker who never gives any thought to whether or not you are drinking too much, or a social drinker who believes that drinking is important, compelling you to continue with the addiction – these 8 reasons will convince you to quit drinking the poison right away, come what may.
Alcohol Causes Cancer
American Cancer Society says the amount of alcohol consumed over time, not the type of alcoholic beverage, is the most important factor in raising cancer risk. Alcohol is a known cause of cancers of the Mouth, Throat (pharynx), Voice box (larynx), Esophagus, Liver, Colon and Rectum, Breast, and Pancreas. For each of these cancers, the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, alcoholism can lead to malnutrition [because alcohol suppresses the appetite], which leads to inadequate intake and absorption of food and nutrients. For this reason, even heavy drinkers who consume high levels of nutrient-rich food, fail to get the full benefit of those nutrients.
Alcohol Affects B-12 Absorption
Drinking alcohol, even in moderation, can have profound effects on the way your body absorbs vitamin B-12, the deficiency of which leads to heart attack and stroke, megaloblastic anemia, fatigue, shortness of breath, tingling and numbness in the extremities, headache, dementia, disorientation, loss of concentration and memory, and even death.
Alcohol Destroys Liver – Forever
Between 10 and 20% of heavy drinkers develop liver cirrhosis – severe scarring and disruption of the normal structure of the liver not reversible with abstinence. Alcohol abuse is one of the three most common causes of cirrhosis of the liver in the US; according to the National Institutes of Health, liver cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death by disease.
Alcohol Is A Depressant
Some people use alcohol to calm their nerves, to soothe their anxiety and to relieve stress. But alcohol is not a medication. Alcohol is a depressant, which actually worsens anxiety by changing the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain; that’s why some people feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off.
Alcohol can damage the inner lining of the stomach, the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder; alter the structure and function of the gastrointestinal tract; and lead to abdominal discomfort, stomachaches, heartburn, and acid reflux.
Alcohol Affects Sleep Quality
While many drinkers would argue that alcohol helps them fall asleep a little faster, researchers at the University of Melbourne have found that alcohol just before sleep can lead to poorer quality slumber. You’re more likely to wake up during the night, and may not feel as rested following your sleep.
“People tend to feel that alcohol helps them fall asleep a little quicker, and therefore people associated that with helping them sleep. But when you actually go and look at what is happening while they sleep, the quality of that sleep isn’t good.”
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate drinking is up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. But with alcohol, the line between “moderate use” and “dangerous use” can be a thin one.
If you believe in the paranormal you might not be surprised if you hear stories of deceased loved ones appearing during the night, huge explosions heard just as someone is drifting off with no obvious cause, and other peculiar occurrences. But what if you don’t?
My interest in the paranormal started with an impromptu coffee with a colleague, Chris French, who researches reports of paranormal experiences. He told me stories of countless people who had recounted such events. These experiences tended to start while lying in bed. Then something unusual would happen – perhaps a demon would appear or the environment would seem strange or there would be a sensed presence. The person having this experience might also report being glued to their mattress, tarmacked into the bed, totally unable to move.
It’s unsurprising that people who experience such things might interpret them as paranormal. But certain phenomena such as sleep paralysis provide an alternative to paranormal explanations for such occurrences. Hence my interest in the subject, as a sleep researcher.
When we sleep, we cycle through different stages. We start the night in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep – which gets progressively deeper. We then cycle back until we hit rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep we are most likely to have vivid dreams. At this stage we are also paralysed, perhaps as a safety mechanism to stop us acting out our dreams so that we don’t end up attempting to fly.
But during sleep paralysis, features of REM sleep continue into waking life. Those who experience it will feel awake yet might experience dream-like hallucinations and struggle to move. This experience is pretty common, occurring in around 8% of people (although estimates vary dramatically depending on who we are asking). It’s even possible to induce sleep paralysis in some people, by disrupting their sleep in specific ways.
Certain researchers, French among them, believe that this explains a huge number of paranormal accounts. Information about sleep paralysis is finally seeping into public awareness, but we now need to understand more about this common complaint.
Sleep paralysis aside, how else are sleep researchers helping to explain paranormal experiences? People sometimes describe experiencing huge explosions during the night which simply can’t be explained. There is no sign that a shelf has fallen down or a car has backfired. There is no one playing the electric guitar next to their head.
Again, this can be linked to our sleep – this time explained by “exploding head syndrome”, a term coined relatively recently by the neurologist JMS Pearce. When we fall asleep, the reticular formation of the brainstem (a part of our brain involved in consciousness) typically starts to inhibit our ability to move, see and hear things. When we experience a “bang” in our sleep this might be because of a delay in this process. Instead of the reticular formation shutting down the auditory neurons, they might fire at once.
As with sleep paralysis, this phenomenon is also under-researched. For this very reason, in 2017 my colleagues and I joined forces with BBC Focus and Brian Sharpless, a leading expert on this phenomenon, to collect data on this topic.
Imps and ghouls
Finally, what might scientists make of precognitive dreams? We might dream of a friend we haven’t seen for years only to have them call us the very next day. French thinks science can provide an explanation for this too. Referencing work by John Allen Paulos that focuses on probabilities, he explains how such an occurrence may be surprising on any single day, but over time, quite likely to occur.
Researching my book, I spoke to Mrs Sinclair, who is 70, and lives alone. She told me about what she had thought was a ghost living in her house, an imp throttling her during the night and other things that had left her petrified. Having scientific explanations provided her with immense comfort and she no longer believes in paranormal explanations for the things that she experienced.
Our hope is that scientific explanations of paranormal experiences might help others by lowering anxiety. Decreasing anxiety has also been hypothesised as a potential method by which to reduce sleep paralysis. So, perhaps providing more information about these unusual experiences might even mean that things are less likely to go bump in the night.
Up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, the most common of which is insomnia; 10 percent of American adults struggle with chronic insomnia and 30 percent report occasional or short-term insomnia
Research finds you can remain consciously aware even while your brain and body are sleeping
Insomniacs who report being awake even when their brain wave patterns indicate they’re sleeping have increased activity in brain areas associated with conscious awareness during the dreamless phase of sleep
If you struggle with insomnia and frequently feel you’ve not slept a wink, processes involved in reducing your conscious awareness during sleep may be impaired. Practicing mindfulness meditation is thought to target these processes and may help improve your sleep experience
Sleeping pills are very limited in their effectiveness and have serious side effects. Safe and natural sleep aids include melatonin, 5-HTP, valerian, chamomile tea and CBD oil
According to the American Sleep Association,1 up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, nearly 40 percent unintentionally fall asleep during the day at least once a month and nearly 5 percent have nodded off while driving at least once. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with 10 percent of American adults struggling with chronic insomnia and 30 percent reporting occasional or short-term insomnia.
Interestingly, insomniacs will often insist they’ve not slept a wink all night, even though they’ve actually been sleeping. Researchers have now discovered there’s a reason for this discrepancy in experience, and it has to do with consciousness. In a nutshell, even though the brain is sleeping, insomniacs remain consciously aware, and therefore believe they’ve not slept at all.
Many Insomniacs Remain Conscious Even When Asleep, Study Finds
Daniel Kay, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who led the study,2 told Medical News Today,3 “… [Y]ou can be consciously aware and your brain [can] be in a sleep pattern. The question is: What role does conscious awareness have in our definition of sleep?” Traditionally, it’s been believed that sleeping involves the absence of conscious awareness, but Kay’s team was able to conclude that this is not categorically true.
To investigate the role of consciousness during sleep, the team analyzed the sleep patterns and subjective experience of 32 people with insomnia and 30 who reported sleeping well.
Once the participants were deemed to be asleep, based on their brain patterns, a radioactive tracer was injected into their arms. Using brain imaging, the researchers were able to examine neurons that remained active during sleep, and their exact locations. The following morning, the participants were asked about their subjective experience of their sleep. Medical News Today explains the results:
“The study found that people with insomnia who reported that they had been awake, even when the polysomnography showed otherwise, had increased activity in brain areas associated with conscious awareness during the dreamless phase of sleep — that is, nonrapid eye movement sleep …
[I]t is normal during the process of falling asleep for the brain to send inhibitory neurons that make people less and less consciously aware until they’ve reached a state of deep sleep. However, what the findings of the new study suggest is that people with insomnia may not feel as though they’re asleep until their brain experiences a greater inhibitory activity in areas that are linked to conscious awareness.”
Normal Sleepers May Not Get as Much Sleep as They Think
As noted by the authors,4 “Brain activity in the right anterior insula, left anterior cingulate cortex, and middle/posterior cingulate cortex may be involved in the perception” of insomnia. People who reported sleeping well turned out to have increased activity in the same areas of the brain as insomniacs. The reason for this is because your brain goes through “an inhibition process” when you fall asleep, gradually lowering your conscious awareness.
While insomniacs require a greater level of inhibition before their consciousness recedes, many good sleepers report falling asleep long before their brainwaves indicate that they’re actually sleeping. This is basically the reverse situation of insomnia: Good sleepers lose conscious awareness at a very low level of inhibition, making them believe they fell asleep much faster than they actually did, based on their brain patterns.
Mindfulness Meditation Recommended for Insomniacs
So, if you struggle with insomnia, frequently feeling you haven’t slept a wink, what can you do? Kay says, “In patients with insomnia, processes involved in reducing conscious awareness during sleep may be impaired. One of the strategies for targeting these processes may be mindfulness meditation. It may help the patients inhibit cognitive processes that are preventing them from experiencing sleep.”
Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful, you’re living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
You can add mindfulness to virtually any aspect of your day — even while you’re eating, working or doing household chores like washing dishes — simply by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is a more formal practice in which you consciously focus your attention on specific thoughts or sensations, and then observe them in a nonjudgmental manner.
This is just one type of meditation; there are many forms available. Transcendental meditation, for instance, is one of the most popular forms of meditation, practiced by millions of people around the world. It’s simple to perform. Simply choose a mantra that has meaning for you, sit quietly with your eyes closed and repeat your mantra for a period of about 20 minutes, twice a day.
The idea is to reach a place of “restful” or “concentrated” alertness, which enables you to let negative thoughts and distractions pass by you without upsetting your calm and balance. Some aspects of mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, and other forms of meditation overlap.
For instance, focusing your mind on your breath is one of the most basic, and most rewarding, relaxation and meditation/mindfulness strategies there is. To learn more about meditation and the different forms of practice available, see “Meditation Connects Your Mind and Body.”
Common Factors That Keep You Awake
Aside from the possibility that you’re simply misperceiving your inability to sleep, certain environmental factors can make it more difficult to fall asleep. This includes such things as:5
Your pillow being too hot. A cool pillow, and more importantly the room temperature overall, will decrease your core body temperature, which induces drowsiness. In one study, insomniacs equipped with a cooling cap fell asleep within 13 minutes — three minutes faster than normal sleepers — and remained asleep 89 percent of the night. Reader’s Digest6 suggests placing your pillow in the freezer for a few minutes before bed to cool it down.
Starting a new medication. A number of different drugs can cause insomnia, including blood pressure medications, antidepressants and steroids. Oftentimes, this side effect can be ameliorated by changing the time at which you take the drug. Beta-blockers, prescribed for high blood pressure and/or arrhythmia, for example, are typically best taken in the morning instead of at night.
Pets. As much as you love your fur-babies, if they’re hogging your bed or filling it with hair, consider keeping your pets out of your bed. According to one Mayo Clinic study,7 while some find their pets help them sleep better, approximately 20 percent of pet owners admitted the animal disrupted their sleep in one way or another.
Cold feet. While cooling your head induces sleep, cold feet can keep you tossing and turning. The solution: Wear socks to bed.
Exhaustion. While exhaustion is frequently confused with tiredness, the two are not the same. When exhausted from stress or overwork, your brain tends to be on high alert. This “cognitive popcorn” can make it difficult to fall asleep, no matter how exhausted your body is. Rather than falling into bed right away after a long day, try winding down, allowing your mind to settle before trying to fall asleep.
When Anxiety or an Overactive Mind Keeps You Awake
One of my favorite tools for resolving anxiety that contributes to insomnia is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which combines tapping on certain points of your body with verbal statements that help pinpoint the underlying issues. In the video above, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for sleep.
EFT helps to release worries, fears and even physical symptoms that stand between you and a good night’s sleep by reprogramming your body’s reactions to many of the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, making it easier to take them in stride.
When stress triggers are reduced, you will naturally sleep better. In 2012, a triple blind study8 found that EFT reduced cortisol levels and symptoms of psychological distress by 24 percent — more than any other intervention tested. This is enormously significant, as there are few things that will destroy your health faster than stress.
Researchers at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine discovered that how you cope with stress might have an even greater impact on your sleep than the number of stressors you encounter. They also found that mindfulness therapies worked best for suppressing the “mental chatter” that inhibits the onset of sleep. Lead author Vivek Pillai, Ph.D., wrote,9 “While a stressful event can lead to a bad night of sleep, it’s what you do in response to stress that can be the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia.”
Avoid Sleeping Pills for Insomnia
To learn more about the ins and outs of sleep, and lots more tips and strategies to improve your quality and quantity of your rest, please see “Sleep — Why You Need It and 50 Ways to Improve It.” Whatever you do, avoid sleeping pills. Not only do they have extremely limited benefits, the side effects can be quite severe. Take Belsomra, for example, a next-gen type sleeping pill that acts on a neurotransmitter called orexin “to turn down the brain’s ‘wake messages.’”
The company’s own clinical trials showed the drug allowed people to fall asleep an average of six minutes sooner than those taking a placebo, and stay asleep 16 minutes longer. More than 1,000 consumer complaints against Belsomra have been filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with complaints ranging from lack of effectiveness and next-day drowsiness to sleep paralysis, heart problems and suicidal ideation. One in 5 reports claim the drug made them the opposite of sleepy.10
Other research has found sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata reduce the average time it takes to fall asleep by about 13 minutes compared to placebo, while increasing total sleep time by about 11 minutes.11 Interestingly, participants believed they had slept longer, by up to one hour, when taking the pills. This is thought to be due to anterograde amnesia, which causes trouble with forming memories.
When people wake up after taking sleeping pills, they may, in fact, simply forget they’d been unable to sleep. Sonata is also associated with addiction.12 Studies have also shown that use of sleeping pills increase your risk of death and cancer.13 To learn more about the hazards of sleeping pills, see Dr. Daniel Kripke’s e-book, “The Dark Side of Sleeping Pills.”14
Natural Sleep Remedies
Fortunately, there are far safer options. While you work on addressing the root causes of your sleep problems, temporarily using a natural sleep aid may help you get to sleep easier. Following are a handful of alternatives:
Melatonin. In scientific studies, melatonin has been shown to increase sleepiness, help you fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep, decrease restlessness and reverse daytime fatigue. Melatonin is a completely natural substance, made by your body, and has many health benefits in addition to sleep. Start with as little as 0.25 milligrams (mg) and work your way up in quarter-gram increments until you get the desired effect.
5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). One of my favorite sleep aids is 5-HTP. 5-HTP is the hydroxylated form of tryptophan. It easily passes your blood brain barrier when it is converted to serotonin (thereby giving mood a boost) and then to melatonin (enhancing sleep). I believe this is a superior approach to using melatonin. In one study, an amino acid preparation containing both GABA (a calming neurotransmitter) and 5-HTP reduced time to fall asleep, increased the duration of sleep and improved sleep quality.15
Valerian root. Studies have found valerian root helps improve the speed at which you fall asleep, depth of sleep (achieving deep sleep 36 percent faster16) and overall quality of sleep.17 Start with a minimal dose and use the lowest dose needed to achieve the desired effect, as higher dosages can have an energizing effect in some people. Typical dosages used in studies range between 400 mg and 900 mg, taken anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours before bed.
Chamomile tea. This herb is typically used in the form of infusions, teas, liquid extracts or essential oils made from the plant’s fresh or dried flower heads. It has sedative effects that may help with sleep, which is why chamomile tea is often sipped before bed.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Another alternative is to take CBD oil. By bringing tissues back into balance, CBD oil helps reduce pain, nerve stimulation and muscle spasm. It also promotes relaxation and has been shown to improve sleep.
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