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New research suggests the glymphatic system flushes toxins from the brain while you sleep, which could lower your dementia risk. Nisian Hughes/Getty Images
  • New research shows sleep has the ability to lower the risk of developing neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
  • Getting quality sleep protects brain health by improving immunity and reducing stress — both of which lower inflammation.
  • The glymphatic system, which is activated during sleep, plays a major role in clearing away toxins, which helps reduce the risk of neurological disorders.
  • To improve your sleep, experts recommend getting at least seven hours of rest each night, make sure your room is cool and avoid overstimulating activities too close to bedtime.

Growing evidence shows that getting quality sleep is correlated with improved brain health.

Now, new research from neurologists presenting at the Annual Meeting of the American Neurological Association (ANA) looks at how getting good sleep can decrease the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD).

According to researchers presenting at the Presidential Symposium – Exploring Sleep Disturbances in CNS Disorders plenary session at the 148th Annual Meeting of the American Neurological Association (ANA), sleep has the potential to decrease the risk of certain neurological disorders.

These neurological disorders include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorder, frontotemporal dementia, REM sleep disorder, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

Neurologists also note that getting quality sleep is beneficial for those with existing neurological disorders and can also lower the risk of developing these conditions.

The study illustrated how the glymphatic system, which cleans the brain of waste material is only effective during sleep.

“The glymphatic system—active during the first half of the night, in slow-wave sleep—is a major ‘power wash’ for the brain, clearing it of all the toxins from a day of activity,” said Dr. Alex Dimitriu, double board certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.

“This cleaning process is so powerful your brain is able to do little else during this time, and when this process is disrupted (as for older people in the hospital) — delirium can result. If this process continues, the risks for dementia increase — partly due to the lack of deep sleep and glymphatic cleaning.”

Dimitriu was not involved in the research.

Dr. Patrick Porter, neuroscience expert and founder of the headset company BrainTap called the glymphatic system a “remarkable mechanism.”

It “operates exclusively during deep level 4 sleep,” Porter explained. “This system clears waste materials from the brain, including harmful tau proteins and amyloid beta, reducing the risk of neurological disorders. Sleep contributes to optimal brain function, memory consolidation, and emotional well-being. Without deep level 4 sleep your brain really never detoxes.”

Porter also pointed out that sleep plays a “pivotal role” in neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“These conditions often lead to significant sleep disturbances, worsening the overall quality of life for affected individuals,” Porter, who was not involved in the research, said. “Furthermore, insufficient or excessive sleep can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease-like changes in the brain, such as the accumulation of amyloid beta plaques and tau tangles.”

Sleep and mental health, emotions, memory and cognitive performance are closely connected.

Improved sleep results in improved immunity and reduced stress levels, which in turn lowers inflammation.

Additionally, improved sleep could lead to healthier eating habits and fewer cravings for carbohydrates, which may benefit weight loss and increase motivation to exercise — all of which are good for the brain, Dimitriu explained.

“Sleep is the ultimate restorative and housekeeping activity of the brain. As a specialist in both psychiatry and sleep medicine, I have seen amazing outcomes in helping people sleep better,” said Dimitriu.

“With improved sleep comes improved impulse control (which helps put the brakes on runaway or repetitive feelings), improved memory, and improved ability to learn and retain information.”

Dimitriu said getting more sleep can also help decrease certain symptoms linked to neurological disorders.

“I have also seen improved sleep improve cognition in the elderly and improve ADHD in almost everyone, and for anyone taking any medication, ‘you can’t push the gas if the tank is empty,’ indeed sleep is how the mental tank gets filled,” Dimitriu said.

Past researchhas demonstrated the role of the immune system in clearing up toxins that can contribute to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

It is likely that varying types of immunity are protective against neurodegenerative diseases. It is possible that some people have a higher level of natural or genetic protection against such neurodegenerative disease, Dimitriu explained.

On the other hand, getting sufficient deep sleep is essential in clearing these dangerous toxins – so ideally people are fortunate to have natural immunity and also are active in getting enough sleep.

“Genetics significantly influence both sleep health and the susceptibility to neurological disorders,” Porter stated. “Recent research has identified specific genetic variants associated with shorter sleep durations, which may delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s-like diseases and potentially other neurological conditions. This genetic diversity in sleep traits sheds light on the regulation of sleep and its impact on overall health.”

“Ideally, everyone should sleep 7 hours or more, and to get deep sleep, it is important to try to get to bed at a consistent time each night, ideally before midnight,” said Dimitriu.

Cooling the body during sleep, avoiding alcohol, exercise, meals, and anything too mentally stimulating before bedtime allows the brain to slow down and get more of that rejuvenating deep sleep, Dimitriu noted.

Porter also provides some practical tips:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same times daily.
  • Ensure a dark and quiet bedroom environment, free of artificial light.
  • Use earplugs and eye masks for added comfort if you find outside noises keep you awake.
  • Avoid caffeine consumption after 3 p.m. to prevent sleep disruption. The caffeine in coffee can stay active in your system for 8 hours.
  • Refrain from using screens (TV, phone, tablet) for at least an hour before bedtime. Reading paper books has been found to relax the brain, or listen to relaxing music.
  • Engage in regular exercise in the morning, but avoid strenuous activities in the evening.
  • Avoid eating close to bedtime.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day. And make sure it is at least 2 hours before bed.
  • Practice the 4-8 breaths for deep relaxation. Breathe in to the count of four and then breathe out to the count of eight. This will turn on the parasympathetic system for deep sleep.

These strategies not only help individuals with existing neurological conditions but also reduce the risk of developing them by promoting healthy sleep habits.

Sleep has the potential to decrease the risk of developing neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and others, according to new research.

Sleep improves brain health by boosting immunity, lowering stress, which reduce inflammation.

Another important factor is the glymphatic system, which elimiates toxins during sleep, decreasing the risk of developing neurological disorders.

For better sleep health, experts suggest getting at least 7 hours of rest each night, maintaining a cool bedroom and avoiding activities that overstimulate your brain in the late evening hours.