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Serious Consequences of Sleep Deprivation for Mental Health

Waking up every morning feeling tired and unrested isn’t a great feeling – and now science is saying that it could also have serious long-term consequences for your health.

Sleep Deprivation and Growing Problem of Dementia

There is already plenty of evidence which shows how lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, short term memory loss and depression, and now new studies are showing that disrupted sleep can also lead to a host of other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Back in 1940’s, the average American adult was getting just under 8 hours of sleep every night, but over the years, the number has decreased significantly with most people just having less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Stress and distraction from electronic devices before bedtime seem to be the top two reasons why most people are losing precious hours of sleep every night.

Most of us have gotten into the habit of cramming our personal life around a busy work schedule or using mobile phones excessively before bed which is ruining our quality of sleep. It’s no wonder that two of the most successful world leaders, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who popularized the trend of sleeping no more than 5 hours every night, were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later on in their lives.

Currently, at least 850,000 people in the U.K. suffer from Dementia, and according to predictions by Alzheimer’s Society, the number is expected to increase by 225,000 just this year – in other words, one person is expected to suffer from the brain-related illness every three minutes. Alzheimer’s, which is the most common type of dementia, was first discovered in 1901 by a German doctor named Aloysius Alzheimer. Today, this disease affects more than 62 per cent of those who are diagnosed with dementia.

Effects of Beta-Amyloid Buildup

The concentration of beta-amyloid in the brain is directly related to quality of sleep: as the concentration of toxic protein in the brain became higher, the more difficult it became for patients to get deep REM sleep.

Could the secret to preventing or delaying the onset of this brain illness be in the quality of sleep? We already know that the quality of our sleep declines with growing age, and this is often considered the leading cause behind declining memory in older people – but the effects of sleep disruption are far more exaggerated in people who are suffering from dementia.

Healthy sleep comes in two important phases: REM sleep which is often the initial, lighter phase, and non-REM sleep called deep sleep which enables your brain to strengthen the memory through the production of spindles in thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) which essentially transfers all the information from your brain’s short-term memory to long-term storage.

Several years ago, scientists made the discovery of a toxic protein called beta-amyloid commonly found in the brains of Dementia sufferers. But the protein buildup only occurred in certain parts of the brain – and to the scientists’ surprise, it wasn’t found in the area related to memory, even though memory loss is considered the most salient feature of Alzheimer’s. Instead, the beta-amyloids were more abundant in the area of the brain which is responsible for generating non-REM sleep phase

Why Deep Non-REM Sleep is Important

Only one night of inadequate sleep can cause beta-amyloid build-up, but if you’ve spent years getting only a few hours of sleep, the concentration of this toxic protein slowly prevents you from generating non-REM sleep which is crucial for flushing out the toxin build-up from the brain.

An American sleep scientist named Maiken Nedergaard, who conducted a breakthrough experiment on rats, discovered that the brain’s glymphatic system works in a similar way to the body’s lymphatic system and drains out the toxic chemicals from the brain while we sleep. But this cleaning process occurs only during non-REM sleep.

The most dangerous toxic element that builds up in the brain during the wake period is beta-amyloid, which can lead us down the path to dementia in old age.  Luckily, the brain’s glymphatic system comes to the rescue while we sleep at night, and during the deepest phase of our sleep, it releases a cerebro-spinal fluid which washes away toxins from the brain before we wake up in the morning.

Even though it’s hard to reverse the damage caused by sleep disruption after the age of 40, it is never too late to develop a healthier sleeping habit for a healthier future.

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