IInsomnia is a silent killer. And it can be especially lethal if it’s chronic or long-term. Chronic insomnia can lead to much more than just grogginess in the morning. Among the effects of this type of insomnia include lapses in concentration, feeling sleepy at random times throughout the day, and less control over emotions. But there’s actually a lot more to it than that; being a cranky, unfocused mess in the office could be the least of your worries.
If left untreated, chronic insomnia increases your risk of developing several serious conditions and diseases like high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, obesity, and heart attack. These are the severe side effects of insomnia that researchers have known about for decades. But recently, sleep experts have confirmed another terrible condition that might result from untreated insomnia: Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s ironic about this somewhat recent discovery is that the link between insomnia and Alzheimer’s has been present in patient statistics for decades. But insomnia wasn’t seen as a possible cause of Alzheimer’s; instead, it was the other way around. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s are prone to developing sleep disorders. And for decades, the scientific consensus was that the disease was compromising the parts of the brain responsible for regulating sleep.
But as recent research suggests, it seems that the relationship between sleep and Alzheimer’s is bit more complicated than what experts initially thought.
Insomnia Leads to Neurotoxic Buildup
According to a report released in 2016, the lack of sleep can result in the buildup of toxins in the brain – toxins that contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This discovery began when in 2009, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis observed something alarming inside the brains of sleep-deprived mice.
Scientists often study mice because their bodies react to medication, diseases, and viruses much in the same way as ours. And in this case, the brains of insomniac lab mice were found to be more prone to the unhealthy buildup of amyloid plaques – a neurotoxin that’s associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. While it was a highly significant discovery, it wasn’t until years later that they actually found out how this was happening.
In 2013, another group of scientists observed the brains of sleeping mice to dig deeper and take a closer look. And what they discovered was remarkable: their brains underwent a cleaning process that only happened when they were in deep sleep.
Deep Sleep Triggers a Glymphatic Cleanup
According to Jeffrey Iliff, a neurologist who was part of the study, the clean and clear fluid that’s normally outside of the brain “begins to recirculate back into and through the brain along the outsides of the blood vessels.” This deep sleep movement of cerebrospinal fluid through the brain basically allows it to collect and dispose of chemical byproducts that have began to unhealthily build up inside it – neurotoxins that may have remarkably severe effects on the body, including the Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid plaques.
Furthermore, while this clean-up process appears necessary to maintain a healthy brain, it also only happens during deep sleep: a small window in the entire sleep process. According to experts, humans experience deep sleep during only about 18% of the time, and it only happens during the latter stages of a sleep cycle. This means that 15 to 20-minute naps (aka ideal nap times) are not enough to trigger a cerebral cleanup. However, a good night’s sleep of 7.5 hours or more should allow you to naturally enter deep sleep several times throughout the night.
And therein lies the problem: it’s not that easy for everyone to clock in a straight 7 hours or more of sleep per night. For some insomniacs, the struggle can feel like a long, drawn-out war. The good news is that just like any war, there are several weapons and strategies that you can use to win.
There Are Many Safe Ways to Fight Insomnia (and Alzheimer’s)
If you’ve had insomnia for years, you already know that sleeping pills and other prescribed medication can only fight insomnia for a short time. Long-term use of such medication may result in higher resistance to the drug, prompting larger doses, which in turn can lead to other complications. When tackling insomnia, it’s much more efficient to take a natural, all-organic path.
Regular exercise has been known to be quite effective at treating insomnia. In a massive 2600-person survey on exercise and sleeping patterns, experts found that you can increase the quality of your sleep by as much as 65% if you devote at least 150 minutes of every week to moderate/vigorous exercise. Whether it’s running, martial arts, aerobics, or even dancing, any form of physical activity that makes you sweat and breathe heavily can contribute to how well you sleep.
You can also try aromatherapy methods that have been scientifically-proven to aid in relaxation. For instance, lavender essential oil has been recently observed to be more powerful than valium when it comes to putting people to sleep (without the groggy post-sleep side effects).
Sometimes, the very cause of your insomnia might be the ground zero of sleep itself: your bed. If you haven’t changed your mattress in more than 8 or 10 years, maybe it’s time to throw it out and get a new one for yourself. A good mattress is an investment, especially if you’re a chronic insomniac. Finding the right mattress for your body could save you from having to worry about (and pay for) health problems in the future.
If you’ve tried all this and are still having trouble getting to sleep, it’s time to consult your doctor. And quickly. Insomnia is the type of condition that should be treated as quickly as possible, especially now that there’s evidence that it can actually set the stage for Alzheimer’s. If you can find a way to overcome your insomnia, you can decrease your personal risk of developing that dreaded disease.