How Poor Sleep Affects Your Brain

Did You Know…that poor sleep and low blood oxygen levels are linked to brain abnormalities and dementia?

Brain health is inextricably linked to sleep health.  A 2014 study published in the journal Neurology illustrates the devastating consequences poor sleep may inflict on your cognitive function, especially as you approach your golden years.  Researchers from the Veteran Administration in Hawaii examined 167 Japanese American men and found that poor sleep and low oxygen levels in the blood led to changes in brain tissue and loss of brain cells.

Those are two primary markers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease!

Poor Sleep and Low Oxygen Levels = Recipe for Dementia 

The sleep tests were conducted in the comfort of the men’s homes.  The men were an average age of 84 and died an average of 6 years after the study.  Researchers conducted autopsies and searched for micro infarcts (tiny abnormalities in brain tissue), loss of brain cells, and the tangles and plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.  No association was found between sleep measures and plaques/tangles, but there was a definite link between sleep measures and loss of brain cells and the emergence of brain abnormalities.

Results showed that the men who didn’t get as much slow wave sleep—deep sleep characterized by delta waves and mostly dreamlessness—were more likely to lose brain cells…and loss of brain cells is associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Men who spent 71-90% of sleep time with low blood oxygen levels were 4 times as likely to have changes in brain tissue…the same type of abnormalities exhibited by dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.  This makes sense, as slow wave sleep is critical to processing memories and storing facts.

“These findings suggest that low blood oxygen levels and reduced slow wave sleep may contribute to the processes that lead to cognitive decline and dementia,” said study author Rebecca P. Gelber, MD, DrPH, of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System and the Pacific Health Research and Education Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii.  “More research is needed to determine how slow wave sleep may play a restorative role in brain function and whether preventing low blood oxygen levels may reduce the risk of dementia.”

Who’s Most at Risk? 

Low blood oxygen levels are typically caused by…

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Emphysema
  • Anemia
  • Acute respiratory distress
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Sleep apnea

To help increase oxygen in the blood eat a diet rich in fiber and low in sodium and fat.  Experts recommend eating fruits and vegetables high in potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C, such as bananas and leafy greens.


Natural Sleep Aids

While recognizing that everyone’s sleep needs are different, the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults ages 26 and older get 7-9 hours of sleep every evening.  To ensure a good night’s rest don’t drink caffeinated beverages after noon, and go easy on the sugar throughout the day.
Experts suggest taking advantage of the following natural sleep aids: Spritz some magnesium oil on the bottom of your feet, or sip some magnesium powder before bed.
 Diffuse some sleepy time essential oils (lavender and frankincense) in an aromatherapy diffuser.
 Try some sublingual melatonin capsules to get your sleep cycles back on track.
 Use a sound machine to cancel out any noise that may be keeping you awake at night.

If you suffer from sleep apnea or some other sleep disorder, please seek counsel from your doctor for appropriate guidance.